Route 1 in Howard County has an image problem. Prostitutes and burglars plague parts of it, vacant and run-down buildings mar the view, and the homeless sleep under the Patuxent River bridge.

Despite a few recent promising signs--including a CarMax dealership and a grocery super store that have moved into Savage--the highway is viewed as in need of a serious face lift.

Now, with a commitment from a freshman County Council member and a boost from the governor's "Smart Growth" initiative to revitalize existing communities, that view is becoming a consensus and gaining momentum.

County Council member Guy J. Guzzone, a Democrat whose district includes the sections of Route 1 in Savage and North Laurel, has met with business leaders and area legislators to push for improvement of the corridor.

"It's not a matter of . . . condemning what's there," Guzzone said. "It's a matter of deciding what we want the future to be."

What Guzzone wants is pretty straightforward.

"The best news would be a more attractive, higher-value business community," he said.

Achieving that will be difficult, but he and others hope to build upon the recent successful revitalization of some of the Route 1 corridor in Prince George's County, where several million dollars has been invested to improve the look and safety of the road, rejuvenate a central business district in Laurel and promote new businesses in key areas.

Route 1, once the main north-south highway on the East Coast, was eclipsed with the completion of Interstate 95 in the early 1970s. Since then, Route 1 has evolved from a bustling commercial and travel corridor to a highway heavy with local traffic and flanked by aging strip malls and warehouses and, in some places, abandoned and unkempt properties.

Communities throughout the Washington area have tried to address their portions of the highway. In Fairfax County, for instance, officials changed planning regulations earlier this year to make it easier for property owners to redevelop land along Route 1.

In Howard, Route 1 runs along the eastern edge of the county, stretching from Elkridge south to Savage and North Laurel. Along the way, it is home to unassuming office parks, warehouses, assorted restaurants and several apartment and town house developments.

As the politicians consider ways to revitalize the highway, everyone acknowledges that the project will require money and that the money must come from the state, county and private investors. And some say the county needs to better enforce its laws to make the area safer and cleaner and to keep properties from falling into disrepair.

"There are places that need to be cleaned up, spruced up, flowers can be planted--just real basic aesthetics," said Steven Adler, managing partner of historic Savage Mill, a popular collection of antique and specialty shops.

At Vernons Auto Repair in North Laurel, Richard Milam put a fence around his property to stop break-ins to the RVs he repairs. He installed a security system after several late-night burglaries at surrounding businesses.

"It's definitely out of control lately," said Milam, who runs the business with his brother, Donald, and their mother, Barbara.

Down the road at Skorpios Restaurant, waitress Crescent Wells, a longtime Laurel area resident, is saddened by the decline she says she has seen over the years.

"It seems to have been forgotten," she said. A man walking through the restaurant's parking lot recently thought so little of the place that he decided to urinate in it, she said, and the mobile home park nearby is full of litter and run-down trailers.

"I mean, let's look like we care about where we live," she said.

Wells sees a difference lately between Route 1 in Howard County and in Prince George's County: "There has been a lot of investment in that area lately," she said of the southern section. "Maybe if we had some of the same. . ."

In downtown Laurel, which is in Prince George's County, the corridor's fix-up is centered around the revitalization of historic Main Street, where wide crosswalks and sidewalks make it easy to stroll from the meat market to the florist, post office or clock shop. The city spent $1 million 20 years ago to renovate Main Street, and in 1981, it began having annual festivals to draw visitors. Officials created tax incentives for business improvements in downtown Laurel, and a successful retail, office and residential complex called Patuxent Place went up on Main Street in 1985. Its brick Victorian-style buildings are home to more than 60 apartment dwellers, mostly young single professionals.

"Main Street really is the heart of Laurel," said David K. Cummings, who developed Patuxent Place.

Laurel is benefiting from about $4 million in state Mass Transit Administration money to improve the area around Laurel's MARC train station, and several intersections along Route 1 will be reconstructed next year--with new sidewalks, landscaping and other improvements--with another $4 million from the State Highway Administration.

Guzzone's group is talking with Prince George's County officials, and the Laurel and Howard governments are working on some inter-county ideas, including a public amphitheater nestled in the banks of the Patuxent River.

"There comes a point in time where jurisdictional lines don't mean anything," said Karl Brendle, Laurel's director of development management. "For Route 1 to be healthy, all segments need to be healthy. Everybody's got to come up at the same time."

Guzzone, a former director of Maryland's Sierra Club chapter, agrees that the same sort of progress must be made in Howard County.

"It really is about just making sure that existing communities are great places to live and continue to be great places to live," he said.

To that end, he has organized a group of business leaders to consider what needs to be done.

At the same time, state Del. John A. Giannetti Jr. (D), whose district includes parts of Howard and Prince George's counties, is pushing a proposal to create a state task force to study the corridor in both counties. The group would issue a report next year that would include state funding recommendations and suggestions for boosting economic development.

In the meantime, Giannetti said state money could be sought to beautify the corridor, and now may be the time to ask for it, given the state's anticipated surplus of well over $600 million.

"The Howard County delegation has said that this year we're going to make a concerted effort to look for areas where we can take advantage of the state surplus," he said. "A bond bill for Route 1 is definitely high on that list."

Others aren't so sure that Howard County is ready to ask, because no one has come up with a plan of action for fixing Route 1.

"I think we don't have the answers today, and that's why I don't know how fast we can move," said Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-Howard).

Herman Charity, executive assistant to Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D), agreed. "I think it's important for us to pursue a project and then pursue a bond bill."

Charity said Robey recently worked with the City of Laurel to rid the area near the county line of prostitution, and he is doing so again to address homelessness around the Patuxent River bridge.

CAPTION: Route 1, including this stretch near Laurel, has evolved from a bustling commercial and travel corridor to a highway heavy with local traffic.

CAPTION: Fazli Ozdemir, left, and Crescent Wells prepare food at Skorpios Restaurant. Wells wants the corridor improved.