AUGUSTA, Maine — Auburn residents Tuesday urged lawmakers on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee to approve a bill that would force a study of traffic and safety issues on Route 4.
Those residents hope a plan will be developed to improve safety and reduce the number of serious and fatal accidents that occur on the highway, especially the stretch along Lake Auburn to the Turner line.
“If this committee chooses to let the current situation remain, I know each of you will have a lasting suffering from the next fatality that happens on Route 4 — and it will,” Auburn City Councilor Tizz Crowley warned the panel.
The legislation, LD 875, offered by state Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, directs the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority to study a range of issues, including alternative routes for connecting Route 4 to the Maine Turnpike, some 10 miles away.
Tammie Willoughby, who lives off Route 4 in Auburn and is an emergency room physician, shared photos from various accidents on the highway to help illustrate the severity of the problem.
Willoughby said three contributing factors make the highway especially dangerous: high traffic volume, the speed of the traffic and a poor highway design. She said the traffic volume was estimated at 21,000 vehicles per day on Route 4 in Auburn. The average volume per day of vehicles on the turnpike between Lewiston and Auburn is 17,900, she said.
She said Route 4 didn’t enjoy the design benefits of the turnpike, including physical separations between northbound and southbound lanes, yet the traffic on Route 4 is often moving at turnpike speed.
“It is terrifying for us to look in the rearview mirror while waiting to turn and hope that the car or 18-wheeler flying toward us at breakneck speed either changes lanes or puts on the brakes in time,” Willoughby said.
Also testifying in favor of the study were Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte and Assistant City Manager Howard Kroll.
Kroll said that despite increased police presence and speed enforcement, the accidents continue. LaBonte, Kroll and Rep. Wayne Werts, D-Auburn, a former Auburn fire chief, noted the road’s proximity to Lake Auburn, the drinking water supply for 60,000 people in Lewiston-Auburn.
Werts, who sits on the committee, said only luck has kept a major accident from contaminating the lake. Just one gallon of gasoline could contaminate 1 million gallons of water, Werts said.
Officials from MDOT and the MTA testified against the bill.
Nina Fisher, manager of legislative and constituent services for MDOT, said the idea of testifying against the bill was difficult for her, but the measure could cost the state as much as $1 million.
She said the study doesn’t match the department’s criterion of “planning with purpose … while any new highway and bridge infrastructure that might come out of the study would cost well into the tens of millions and not likely be cost beneficial,” Fisher said.
Committee member Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook, said she was sympathetic to the concerns of the community in Auburn, but funding the study and any changes to the highway would be difficult, given the state’s budget problems.
“My heart goes out to you and I truly sympathize,” Peoples said after half a dozen Auburn residents and state Rep. Mike Beaulieu, R-Auburn, testified in support of the bill.
Peoples said parts of Route 302 in her House District 125 experienced similar traffic and safety problems and that probably all members of the committee could think of examples of bad stretches of highway in their districts.
“I am sure that it would be nice to do a very high-level study of several miles of road,” Peoples said. “We could do that and spend the money to do it, but the problem then becomes: We have no money to implement any of these solutions. That’s simply a matter of fact.”
The bill will come back to the committee sometime in the weeks ahead for possible amendments and a vote recommending whether the full Legislature should pass it into law.
Crashes on Route 4 from the Auburn Shaw’s Plaza to the Turner line
January 2003 through September 2012:
• 5 fatalities, 32 incapacitating injuries, 637 crashes.
• The most common causes of crashes were failure to yield the right of way (29 percent) and following too closely (26 percent). Driving too fast accounted for 14 percent of crashes.
• 73 percent of crashes occurred during the day, the majority of those in the afternoon.
• Less than 6 percent of drivers were impaired or affected (operating under the influence, sleepy, sick).
• Total crashes for this stretch were down 43 percent in 2011 from the year before. But 2012 has already exceeded 2011 and is on pace to see more crashes than in the past three years.
Source: Maine Department of Transportation