Washington area business leaders make a compelling argument for developing alternatives to proposals to widen the Capital Beltway.

A coalition of business organizations last week urged regional officials to suspend plans to widen the Beltway, claiming the six alternatives it proposes would offer more affordable transportation choices.

Even the coalition's estimates show, however, that the alternatives would cost about the same as widening the Beltway. Besides, the new alternatives, though not as extensive as previous proposals recommended by business, would do little to relieve congestion in the area.

Of the six alternatives proposed last week only one, calling for rail service to Dulles International Airport, amounts to a substantive change from the massive road construction programs previously recommended by business leaders.

The coalition, which is being led by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, acknowledges that broader use of "intelligent" transportation systems (telecommuting and providing greater access to the area's mass transit system, for example) will help relieve congestion. Business leaders have even come out in favor of more high-density, mixed-use development.

Still, this new initiative by business leaders is but another variation on an old bankrupt theme: massive and costly road construction. The coalition's proposal to build eastern and western bypasses, for example, is basically a warmed-over version of earlier proposals to build an outer Beltway.

The bypasses, which would be linked south of the District by a bridge crossing the Potomac River between Stafford and Charles counties, clearly would form an outer Beltway around the Greater Washington area.

The western bypass would extend north from Stafford County, through Prince William and Fairfax counties and across the Potomac River into Montgomery County north and west of Gaithersburg, terminating at Interstate 70. The eastern bypass would slice through Charles, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, terminating at the Baltimore Beltway, of all places. The bypass loop would in effect be completed on the north as a result of the interchange between I-70 and I-695 west of Baltimore.

It's difficult to see the point in this elaborate map exercise given the fact that Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening is adamantly opposed to any new river crossing to Montgomery County. And neither is the coalition likely to find a welcoming party among Montgomery County officials.

One could certainly make a plausible argument for a new Potomac crossing, between Stafford and Charles counties, and for upgrading U.S. Route 301, making it a limited-access highway from Charles County to Anne Arundel County. The fact is Route 301 is a natural bypass around I-95 and the Capital Beltway. It already is the preferred route for hundreds of motorists who travel the busy I-95 corridor between Maine and Florida.

But ringing the Washington area with an outer Beltway or even building a western bypass would not be a cost-effective solution to the many transportation problems arising from thousands of commuters having to travel to remote employment centers that were built to accommodate commuting by auto.

The eastern and western bypass proposals simply do not address a genuine need to improve the many 18th-century and early-19th-century roads that exist in the area.

A so-called techway, linking the Rockville-Gaithersburg area and Reston-Dulles via another bridge across the Potomac, hardly qualifies as a practical solution to the problem. It's not only ludicrous but shortsighted and elitist to propose such a link.

Why would officials in Maryland consider such a proposal rather than make every effort to establish a stronger intrastate link between technology sectors in Montgomery and Prince George's counties? The cross-county parkway proposed by the business coalition would help facilitate such a program. But then the parkway is just another name for the Intercounty Connector, which Glendening opposes.

Even so, Glendening has some more thinking to do on the subject. Maryland's technology sector is concentrated primarily in suburban Washington, where 92 percent of the state's technology employment and establishments, including federal research labs and other facilities, are based, according to a study that was done for the state's Department of Business and Economic Development last year. The same study showed more than 79,000 workers were employed in high-tech jobs in Montgomery County and more than 33,000 in Prince George's.

Business leaders understandably are concerned about the adverse effects of traffic problems on the local economy. Unfortunately, the solutions they recommend are neither economically sound nor practical.