The overwhelming defeat last month of Fairfax City's road bond referendum for relieving traffic jams on Rte. 123 has put the fate of the road and the political lives of City Council members in doubt.

City leaders are severely divided over what to do next. Some want to go ahead with another ambitious road bond issue, while others say the question of what to do about the road is so explosive that they need to ask the voters' advice in a nonbinding referendum in May, when all six council seats and the mayor's office are up for election.

"I think there's a . . . high risk of {present council members} losing the next election over it," said council member Patrick A. Rodio. "It will be the issue the next election, there's no doubt about it . . .we could all go."

Chain Bridge Road (Rte. 123) is one of Northern Virginia's few north-south primary roads. It connects the Burke and Fairfax Station area with I-66 and the Dulles corridor, and it is a major feeder for George Mason University and the county government complex in Fairfax City.

Each day, 25,000 to 30,000 motorists use two-lane stretches of the road in the city south of Rte. 50, and accidents result when cars rounding Rust Curve encounter vehicles backed up at lights in front of them. Two new shopping and office developments in Fairfax City are scheduled to open next year, adding even more cars..

"We're very, very close to gridlock," said City Council member Glenn L. White. "With the major office projects that are going to come on line in the next 18 months, it's going to be just fierce."

If a political upheaval results from plans to improve the road, it would not be the first time in Fairfax City, where voters traditionally have liked their politics rough and Chain Bridge Road narrow. In 1974, four City Council members were defeated after the council tried to widen the road to four lanes. The action would have meant destroying tree-lined Rust Curve, a move critics said would have sacrificed a symbol of Fairfax's small-town character so that nonresident commuters could speed through.

In June, the City Council voted 5 to 1 to present voters with a $15 million road bond referendum to make part of Chain Bridge Road one way, and improve University Drive so that it could handle traffic going in the other direction.

Even though the plan would have left Rust Curve intact, voters defeated it almost 3 to 1 after opponents argued it could cost more than $50 million with interest.

The council still has a menu of choices for improving Chain Bridge Road. It can try again to widen it to four lanes, either with a bond referendum or with state highway funds. It can widen all or part of it to three lanes, a cheaper approach that it might be able to pay for out of general revenue. It can hope long-stalled negotiations with the Fairfax County officials on building a bypass around the city on Shirley Gate Road will finally move ahead, with the new county Board of Supervisors taking office in January. Or, of course, it can do nothing.

But each of these possible solutions has problems, and right now, the council is split on which way to go.

Two members, White and Allen C. Griffith, want another bond referendum to make the road four lanes, at a cost of about $8 million. A three-lane road would simply be overwhelmed by traffic, they say. The state, they say, might not pay for four lanes until the next century and a bypass around the city will require more cooperation between city and county officials than has ever been possible.

"It's time for the City Council to stop beating their gums about the city's traffic problem and do something about it," White said.

But if the council goes ahead with another referendum, it will be attacked by those who see traffic through the city as the responsibility of someone else. "The biggest thing I cannot understand is why White and Griffith are saying the City of Fairfax should pay 100 percent" of the cost of road improvements, said former city council member Mary Roper. "It's a state highway. It's the state's responsibility to pay 95 percent."

"It may not be defeated 3 to 1, but it will be defeated 2 to 1," predicted another former council member, Walter Stephens.

Council member Rodio proposes an advisory referendum asking voters whether they would want four lanes on Chain Bridge Road if the state would pay for 95 percent of the cost, under its regular road improvement program. "Bond issues don't go over too well in Fairfax . . . . They're a conservative bunch here," he said.

Mayor George T. Snyder Jr. wants to take this idea even further, suggesting that voters be given a range of options on the May ballot, and then using the outcome to guide policy. "I'd like to develop a shopping list that would indicate quite clearly to the council what sorts of things the people would want," then possibly put a bond referendum on the ballot next November.

Unlike most of the council members, Snyder did not get into political trouble over the last bond referendum, which he opposed. He has pushed hard for the Shirley Gate bypass, a popular idea in Fairfax City. He says he is optimistic the new Board of Supervisors will be more willing to negotiate than the last one, especially after the defeat of the last bond referendum demonstrated how difficult it would be to get city voters to support a purely local approach.

The incoming chairman of the board, Audrey Moore, has agreed to meet to discuss the issue.

Council member John Mason, who cast the lone vote on the City Council against the last referendum, also supports a regional plan. In the meantime, he has proposed widening part of Chain Bridge Road north of Rust Curve and south of Rte. 50 to include a center turning lane, a much cheaper approach. He says the city could pay for it out of general revenue, but opponents call it a Band-Aid measure.

But whatever this council decides, the next one may have different ideas. Although White and Snyder say they will seek reelection, Griffith, Rodio, Mason and Dorris Reed say they may not.

A number of people are rumored to be eying slots on the council. Former council member Gene Moore said he has been getting "four or five calls a day" from people urging him to run again, and said he "more than likely" will.

Roper said it is premature to talk about the next election, but added, "I think there are some people on the City Council who could use a few years off."