A key safety change could come within a year to a Cotati intersection that was the scene of two fatal vehicle crashes in 2009.

Transportation officials are planning to create a westbound left turn lane from Highway 116 onto Madrone Avenue on the town's west side.

But construction won't start until next summer at the earliest, Caltrans district director Bijan Sartipi said in a letter to Cotati and Sonoma County officials. Last March, the department said it might go forward within a few months.

Still, local officials were happy with the news.

"I'm very glad that Caltrans is moving forward on the project even if it's still a year out," said Barbara Vrankovich, superintendent of the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District.

Sig changes to clarify the area's 45-mph speed limit already have been completed.

The intersection has raised concerns for years.

"It is a tragedy waiting to happen," Cotati resident John Metras, then a teacher at nearby Thomas Page Elementary School, said in 1998 in a letter to the Cotati City Council.

Last week, he said Caltrans' plans were dismally late.

"There's no crosswalk, there's no turn lane, there's no traffic lights, there's nothing, and it's two blocks from a major highway," Metras said. "It should have been in the planning 15 years ago."

Such concerns gained further currency last fall when two women died in crashes that took place within a month of each other.

Last October, Maria Juanes Flores of Santa Rosa was killed when her car was rear-ended into the path of a big-rig as she waited to turn left from the highway onto Madrone Avenue.

In a similar crash in November, a car turning left across the highway onto Madrone Avenue was struck by an oncoming pickup. A passenger in that car, Casa Grande High School student Anais Barajas Centeno, was fatally injured.

The driver of the car in which Centeno was a passenger, Luz Maria Mejia-Perez, was convicted of vehicular manslaughter because she failed to yield to oncoming traffic.

Cotati Mayor Robert Coleman-Senghor said the intersection improvement would be welcome. Although he wished it could take place sooner, the city's options are limited because the intersection is Caltrans' jurisdiction, he said.

"Caltrans moves at its pace, and there's not much that we can do about it, except keep it before them," he said. "And that's the responsibility of the city, . . . and that's what we've been doing."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com