A Metro story yesterday incorrectly stated the amount of federal money Virginia receives for construction on existing interstate highways. The amount is about $70 million a year. (Published 9/6/90)

Maryland's plan to widen a two-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway in Prince George's County points up the difficulty of achieving significant relief from traffic congestion on the region's Main Street, transportation officials said yesterday.

Lacking the billions of dollars needed for major projects to ease Beltway congestion, Maryland and Virginia highway officials are limited to making improvements on the margins, such as the $15.7 million widening between Route 1 and New Hampshire Avenue (Route 650) announced Monday.

By comparison, the long-term solutions to Beltway congestion are considerably more expensive. An expanded Woodrow Wilson Bridge could top $1 billion when built, and new bypasses outside the Beltway would cost more than $1.7 billion each.

"We don't have big dollars to initiate major projects, so the amount we're working with here is a modest improvement," said Cres Mills, chief highway engineer for the district that includes the 43-mile Maryland part of the Beltway.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, campaigning in Beltsville, made the announcement about the Beltway project on Labor Day after being told late last week by federal officials that they would finance 90 percent of the cost.

The decision by federal officials to finance the project demonstrates Maryland's success rate in coming up with money for needed projects. Virginia, with greater demands, often falls short, although the state recently won a $237 million chunk of federal money to complete rush-hour car pool lanes on the Shirley Highway outside the Beltway.

"It's another example of how Maryland is way ahead of us," said Fairfax County Board Chairman Audrey Moore.

Starting next July, Maryland will add a fifth lane to the inner and outer loops of the Beltway between Route 1 near College Park and New Hampshire Avenue near White Oak. That will be the Beltway's only 10-lane segment.

About 160,000 vehicles travel each day on that stretch, a frequent trouble spot on the Maryland part of the Beltway.

A new freeway lane provides room for another 2,000 vehicles an hour. In the next 20 years, some Beltway sections may carry more than 300,000 vehicles a day.

Because workers will be building the new lane using the center median and shoulders, Mills said, drivers can expect some delays during construction, which is supposed to end in early 1992.

Except for the new section, which will have five lanes in each direction, Maryland's part of the Beltway will have four lanes each way when the current widening project between the American Legion Bridge and just north of River Road ends later this year.

Virginia's 23 miles of Beltway are mostly eight lanes, except for a segment between the George Washington Parkway and Route 193 (Georgetown Pike) that is currently being widened.

A short piece of the outer loop between Interstate 66 and Route 50 is five lanes.

Unlike Virginia, which is considering a $1 billion plan to widen its part of the Beltway to 14 lanes, Maryland does not have additional land between the American Legion Bridge and New Hampshire Avenue for extra lanes.

Some Beltway sections between New Hampshire and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge may eventually be widened to 10 lanes, but not for several years, said state highway chief Hal Kassoff.

Maryland has about $3 billion in needs, but gets about $40 million a year in federal money for projects on existing interstates. Virginia received $13 million last year; its 20-year needs are $38 billion.

Officials are hoping that Congress will be more generous when it draws up a new federal highway program next year.

Meanwhile, highway officials are searching for quick fixes such as the Prince George's project.

Virginia's interim $80 million plan for the Beltway is the addition of a fifth lane between the Shirley Highway and Route 123 by using the existing shoulders and narrowing some lanes.

"Even then, you're only buying yourself five years of improved capacity before it fills up again," said Morris J. Rothenberg, the Alexandria consultant hired by Virginia to study the Beltway.