Nick Bassford's first name was misspelled in an article Sunday about plans to expand Route 301 in Maryland. (Published 12/07/1999)

Nic Bassford vividly recalls the day he got the bad news. Bassford, who since 1981 has owned the popular Rip's Restaurant on Route 301 off Route 50, had planned to spend $3.6 million to expand the business. He was going to add more dining space and a seafood market. But there was a problem, his engineer said.

"He said he'd had a terrible thing happen at the county that morning," said Bassford, who had already contracted to begin work.

Rip's, the engineer had discovered, sat in the middle of the site for a large new interchange for Route 301. "We thought he was joking," Bassford said.

That was seven years ago. Today, the interchange is unbuilt, but few doubt it will come. Bassford is facing a hard truth: He's going to lose his business.

"That sure takes Rip's away," he said. "I'm not a spring chicken; I'm 62. They sort of wore me out waiting."

What he is waiting for is a $1.8 billion superhighway, a planned six- to eight-lane freeway on Route 301 all the way from Route 50 south to the Potomac River. The north-south route is an alternative to Interstate 95 but has lots of stop-and-go traffic and has been accident-plagued for several years.

The plan to drastically alter 301 has been something of a stealth project, creeping quietly through the approval process for years, little known outside a small army of planners, bureaucrats, politicians and state and county officials.

Meant to accommodate growth, the projected superhighway is also likely to spur more development in Maryland, altering the landscape and the lives of people living along its 50-mile path.

Like the intercounty connector that was to link Laurel and Gaithersburg, the new and improved 301 is likely to stir controversy once its scope becomes well known.

Planners are projecting a controlled-access highway by 2020 from Bowie on the north to the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge over the Potomac, generally following the current alignment of Route 301 through Prince George's and Charles counties but possibly bypassing Waldorf to the east or west, though upgrading the present alignment through Waldorf also is being considered.

The plans call for work starting in six to 10 years, initially on a two-mile segment that would include the major interchange around Routes 50, 197 and 301 that would swallow up Rip's and its 138 employees. Another major interchange would then be built at Upper Marlboro, transforming the area east of the Prince George's County seat.

Altogether in Prince George's, there would be six interchanges, 20 overpasses and service roads to provide access to adjoining tracts, homes and businesses.

In the northern corridor, from Route 50 to the intersection of Routes 301 and 5 in Prince George's, the widened highway would take 322 properties and 800 acres, under the county's current master transportation plan.

"I don't think a lot of people know all the stuff being looked at," said Heidi F. Van Luven, 301 project director for the Maryland Department of Transportation. "Projects that cause the most concern to citizens are certainly highlighted, but other items get tossed aside. It's hard to see the forest for the trees."

A prior widening of the route to include the present northbound lanes left a median strip in spots, with houses, businesses, even farms. The median would be kept when the highway was redone, but the current southbound lanes would become a service road.

"It's going to be the biggest condemnation case since the Beltway," said John Lally, an Upper Marlboro land use lawyer. Several hundred landowners would be affected by the project.

Across the Potomac in Virginia, there are no plans to expand 301, but officials there are watching the highway evolve in Maryland and, if it causes a large increase in traffic, may eventually have to respond.

Officials insist the upgrading and expansion of 301 is not the eastern Washington bypass, officially dropped in 1992. But the latest plan to upgrade 301 is an outgrowth of that proposal and is designed to carry increasing traffic through eastern Prince George's and Charles counties.

There is widespread agreement among officials, residents and motorists that 301 poses increasing traffic and safety hazards that have resulted in backups and fatalities, and projections for more growth have raised safety concerns for the future.

Growth along the route has resulted in more traffic lights, slowing traffic and heightening pressure for road improvements: In 1980, there were 14 lights from Route 50 to the river; now, there are 41.

While traffic moves in fits and starts, planning for the superhighway continues unimpeded. Most of the cost of the highway project will be borne by the federal government. But the state will absorb a share, up to 20 percent, officials say.

A Maryland state-staffed Policy Oversight Committee and Technical Advisory Group have been meeting regularly, consultants have been hired, studies done. The 301 Implementation project has a newsletter and an extensive, if somewhat outdated World Wide Web site (www.mdot.state.md.us/us301/index.html). Route 301 meetings are open to the public but generally unpublicized.

"It is an ongoing train," said former Bowie mayor Gary G. Allen, "an ongoing process in which we begin with a world we didn't make. We begin with the work already completed."

Indeed, since 1993, Maryland has paid $7.4 million to consultants and budgeted $20.5 million for land acquisition, of which roughly half has been spent or committed. To "reserve" land for the road, officials have also barred development of other parcels along the route in Prince George's.

A preliminary environmental-impact study for the northern corridor is nearing completion. Another study, by a governmental subcommittee and an $80,000 consultant, recently concluded that the highway corridor should have as its theme: "connection." There's even a proposed logo.

Plans have sparked vigorous opposition in Charles County, where a proposed western bypass of Waldorf would cut a wide path through the countryside, directly affecting 25 neighborhoods; opponents have rallied around another proposal to upgrade the existing road. A citizens advisory committee is to recommend a course next year.

In Prince George's, where the size and impact of the planned road have received little public notice, a similar group has been authorized but not appointed.

"This thing is immense," said Brandywine activist Carmen Anderson. "People aren't getting a picture of how big this is. This is frightening."

Anderson is a member of Commission 2000, a 53-person public panel created to help chart the county's future. At a recent briefing on the road, she said: "This is a pretty good swath of asphalt, folks. Our options are being closed off by this process. It is being laid out for us. It is the eastern bypass and the outer beltway--the antithesis of smart growth."

The original highway was the dream of Robert Crain, a Charles County farmer and lawyer, with offices in Washington and Baltimore, who wanted the road for farmers to market their crops to northern cities. He persuaded the state to fund $1.25 million for Route 301, which also bears his name.

To celebrate the highway's opening, 20,000 people turned out for the ceremonies in Upper Marlboro on Oct. 22, 1927. A stone memorial obelisk marks the site. There were parades, beauty contests and a luncheon for 12,000. But the cheering didn't last long.

A decade later, a clamor arose to improve the 15- to 18-foot-wide highway when seven young people burned to death after their car was struck by a truck. Politicians demanded improvements. Even the governor declared the highway "a serious menace."

Through traffic dropped off drastically after I-95 opened in 1965, but subsequent residential and commercial growth in the corridor has more than made up for it. The increased traffic has also proved lethal, particularly around Bowie and Waldorf, resulting in many fatal accidents and new pressures to improve flow and safety.

The counties have taken some interim measures, such as improving the timing of lights and increasing bus service, intended as stopgaps until a limited-access highway is built.

In the La Plata area, state highway officials have curtailed new access points to the highway, to the displeasure of Mayor William F. Eckman, who said he fears a superhighway would cost his town 500 jobs and 25 percent of its businesses.

Crain Highway was extended south of La Plata for the completion in 1940 of the Potomac River bridge, a span Crain's son, Bennett, was instrumental in getting built. When the road to the bridge was widened after World War II, recalled Eloise Crain, Bennett's widow, her husband tried--but failed--to persuade the decision-makers to make it a limited-access highway.

"All I can say is the Crains had vision," she said. "He [Bennett] predicted what would happen. He said it's going to be a mess."

Proposed Expansion

Plans are underway to turn U.S. Route 301 in Maryland into a controlled access freeway with major new interchanges from Route 50 to the Potomac River, at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion.

Meant to accommodate growth, the projected superhighway is also likely to spur more development in Maryland, altering the landscape and the lives of people living along its 50-mile path.

The plans call for work starting in six to 10 years, initially on a two-mile segment that would include the major interchange around Routes 50, 197 and 301.

Planners are projecting a controlled-access highway by 2020 from Bowie south to the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge over the Potomac. The road generally following the current alignment of U.S. Route 301 through Prince George's but possibly would bypass Waldorf to the east or west.