Davis Ford Road. For Prince William residents, those three words bring to mind traffic jams, horrible accidents and the county's biggest political fight this year.

Everyone agrees that Davis Ford can't handle cross-county and commuter traffic. But the county's plan to alleviate the problem by building a 7 1/4-mile, four-lane road parallel to the existing one has been mired in controversy since January.

Some mid-county residents, many of whom live along the planned new route, contend that county officials have failed to live up to their promise to improve existing two-lane Davis Ford. Other residents wonder whether the county can afford the $63 million project.

Now county voters will have the chance to decide. A question on the November ballot asks them to give the county the right to issue a $43 million bond to pay for construction of the new road. The remaining $20 million needed for the purchase of rights of way, design and safety improvements to existing Davis Ford will come from another bond that voters approved in 1988.

So far, the road's opponents have been relatively quiet, barring a few letters to the editors of local papers, and a citizens committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors has been trying to drum up support for the project.

"The road is definitely needed from a traffic and a safety point of view," said Stephen E. Phinney, citizens committee chairman.

Bonds are always a complex question in Prince William, where voters have only recently begun to accept the idea of debt financing.

Until 1987, county residents regularly rejected bond proposals that would have financed projects ranging from schools to road improvements. As a result, most facilities had to be built with money the county had on hand, and many -- the McCoart Government Center, for example -- are now inadequate.

But a school bond passed three years ago, and four separate bond issues, including the $20.2 million for Davis Ford Road, were approved in 1988.

This year's bond referendum, however, comes as the county faces a $17 million revenue shortfall next year, and many people fear the economy will continue to slide.

Issuing the Davis Ford bonds would commit the county to 20 years of interest payments. County officials calculate that the first few years of payments would require the supervisors to increase the real estate tax rate of $1.36 per $100 of assessed value by 2 or 3 cents, or cut existing services to make up the difference.

The financing plan does take into account the slumping economy, and paying off the bonds would cost proportionately less in later years. But that is small comfort to the road's opponents.

"We can't afford it," said Phil Williams, who led the fight against the route that the Board of Supervisors ultimately picked.

This particular bond may also suffer from its controversial history.

The 1988 referendum, in which Prince William voters approved their first road bond ever, included money for improvements to Davis Ford Road and other corridors.

When a citizens committee and the Department of Public Works recommended using the bond money to build an entirely new road between Hoadly Road and Liberia Avenue, mid-county residents contended that they had been duped.

But other residents argued that the new road would cost $20 million less than widening the existing road and would displace fewer homes.

After an emotional two-hour public hearing, the supervisors unanimously voted in June to build the cheaper, alternate route and use $2 million for safety improvements to the 12 most dangerous intersections on the existing road.

The question now is whether, in an election that is expected to bring out few voters, the project's opponents will outnumber the thousands of exhausted commuters who want some new road built and don't care where it goes.