State highway builders last week outlined the paths that a bypass around U.S. Route 301 could take if it were built to the east of Waldorf.
The proposals, chosen by a Charles County citizens committee, also restored an option to the debate on whether a bypass should be located west of Waldorf.
State and county leaders are deciding how to ease increasing congestion on the road, which serves as Southern Maryland's retail hub and is an important route for commuters and long-distance travelers.
The State Highway Administration is using public workshops to display large maps of possible eastern and western bypass routes, as well as diagrams showing how the current road could be upgraded in Waldorf.
The latest workshops, designed to elicit public comment, were held Tuesday and Wednesday evenings in Charles County high schools. A third session is set for Thursday at Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine, in lower Prince George's County.
Whether to build a Waldorf bypass is unlikely to be decided until early 2001, said Dennis M. Atkins, the project manager for Route 301. He said the workshops are "an opportunity to share information with hundreds of people" instead of the limited number involved in planning meetings.
In addition to its intensive study of the Waldorf area, the highway administration is examining a longer corridor, comprising Route 301 from the Potomac River to north of Brandywine in lower Prince George's County, and Maryland Route 5 from that point to the Capital Beltway.
Highway planners say the large-area study will help them choose corridors that can be protected from development that would block or interfere with construction of such future projects as a possible bypass of La Plata.
The studies aim to find ways to keep Route 301 flowing as rapid regional growth increases its already heavy traffic by 40 percent or more in the next 20 years.
Without improvements, 11 Route 301 intersections in Waldorf will "fail" under heavy traffic loads by 2020, according to state officials. An intersection is considered to be failing if drivers must wait two traffic light cycles or more to get through it.
A state-sponsored task force examined Route 301 from the Potomac River to U.S. Route 50 in Prince George's County, and concluded in 1996 that Waldorf needed a western bypass.
The recommendation sparked instant controversy, with opponents saying such a road would abet harmful sprawl development and proponents saying a bypass would save Route 301 from business-choking traffic jams.
Charles County commissioners, saying they wanted a new and detailed look at Waldorf's options, last year appointed a citizens committee to examine the question.
That group devised the eastern bypass routes presented last week.
Commissioner James M. Jarboe (D-Indian Head), an opponent of a western bypass, said the eastern routes seemed to inject a new element into the debate. But he said he favors extensive improvements to the existing roadway, while also preserving a corridor if a bypass becomes necessary.
The five elected commissioners play an important role in deciding which improvements are to be built, for they must modify county land-use policy to make way for any bypass.
One other commissioner, W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata) has suggested the citizens committee look into a bypass with the characteristics of a parkway, with truck traffic banned.
The remaining three commissioners have not publicly indicated what option they prefer.
At Tuesday's public workshop at Maurice J. McDonough High School in Pomfret, one group was clear on which option was most alarming. Cathy DeMarr, 50, and her daughter Mary Sutton, 31, said they came to the meeting to inspect possible alignments of an eastern bypass.
"It's a nice presentation, but upsetting," said Sutton. She said 350 acres of family farmland stand to be bisected by an eastern bypass.
"It's just beautiful land," said Sutton. "I walk it. I love it. To think they would put a highway in there is just upsetting."
On the western side of Route 301, Arthur Larson, 62, and his wife, Irene Larson, felt the pull of similar emotions.
"I don't have any idea of what they're going to do," said Arthur Larson. "But I'd like to stop them from doing it close" to the couple's house near Turkey Hill Road.
"There's one alternative that would go relatively close to our house," said Arthur Larson. "Now, if they don't pick that, we're happy. But it still seems to me that the one that would please most people is an upgrade."
Some business owners oppose a substantial upgrade of Route 301, saying it would create a forbidding barrier of high-speed traffic down the middle of Waldorf's commercial district.