A Road Much Studied

In Charles County, the debate about traffic on U.S. Route 301 has usually focused on whether to build a bypass around Waldorf or proposals to limit points of access to the highway, including driveways into businesses that line the road.

Meanwhile, state highway planners have been moving ahead with the process that could lead to Route 301 becoming a six- to eight-lane superhighway all the way from Route 50 in Prince George's County to the Potomac River crossing in southern Charles County.

Planners project that the freeway-type road could be built by 2020. The planning process divides the overall project into a northern corridor in Prince George's and a southern corridor from approximately Brandywine south to the river.

Last summer, state officials began a series of public workshops seeking to inform citizens of the general outlines of plans for the road and to hear citizen input. The officials expect their studies to be complete by early 2001, with full public hearings to follow.

In a report Sunday, The Washington Post described plans currently on the books that would transform the highway and some of the land along its right of way. Today's report looks at some specific local implications of the road building plan. Most of the examples cited here are in Prince George's County, where the process is further along.

It was known in the last century as Hall's Station on the Pope's Creek railroad line. Eventually the stop, named for a local family, became a dot on the map of Route 301, where Central Avenue crossed Robert Crain Highway in eastern Prince George's County.

The little settlement, a collection of small businesses--auto repair shops, a bar, a lumberyard, a storefront church--still exists.

But its days are numbered.

Hall sits smack in the middle of a huge cloverleaf interchange with Route 214 (Central Avenue) on the drawing boards, to be built by 2020. Then Hall, like towns swept away by reservoirs, will cease to exist.

This leaves folks such as Mike Karl in a bind. Karl, 49, owns Johann's Foreign Car Service, the European auto repair business his father started in 1963, but he doesn't own the building. The owner wants him to buy it, and he doesn't know what to do.

"How do I deal with the situation?" he asked. "I got a highway knocking on my door over here. I got the landlord knocking on my door over there. Years ago, this was the end of the world. Now I'm getting the flow of residential people, and they're gonna sic a highway on me. Basically, I'm just confused. I know the 214 interchange is going to take this corner out. I'd like to see it happen today."

Across Old Central Avenue, Captain's Corner does a brisk business in 99-cent happy hour drafts. Lunch customers salivate over owner Mary Chaney's burgers. This was the original Rip's Restaurant and Bar, since moved up the road to Bowie, where owner Nick Bassford worries about being smack in the middle of another proposed interchange.

All of this is the result of plans to turn Route 301--Robert Crain Highway--into a $1.8 billion six- to eight-lane superhighway from Route 50 to the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge over the Potomac River.

"I've known it was going to happen. I'm just anxious to see when and what," said Chaney, 52. "It'll be a shame when they tear this down." On the other hand, she said, traffic is a nightmare--and deadly. North of Route 214, she recalled, pedestrian Larry Berman was fatally struck by a southbound Prince George's police car. A cross marks the spot, and a life span: 6/28/46--10/13/98.

"Every time you wiggle," she said, "someone gets killed."

While those living and working along the road carry on, planners are working hard to design the new road, to chart a course that will take the land of some and leave the land of others to provide speedier access to distant points--and limit local access from one side of the road to the other.

A precise date for the 214/301 cloverleaf hasn't been set, but it's in the 20-year plan.

For now, Prince George's County has declared the countryside east of Route 301 off-limits to growth, but there is fear that with the superhighway, developers would argue "change in the neighborhood" to bolster their case for zoning changes that would chop up the rural area. "There's going to be a lot of pressure," Bowie Mayor G. Frederick Robinson said.

Said Don Stelfox, owner of Patuxent Nursery, 40 acres on the east side of 301 south of Bowie: "They're going to encourage more density. We're running out of suburbia, the countryside." Maps show the new road routed through his property, to a depth of 110 feet. "That would cut my nursery in half, would ruin it," he said.

A major interchange at Routes 197 and 301 is a certainty and first on the list. Next in line is Upper Marlboro, where two proposed alignments would take the highway east of its current route for some miles, with a new Route 4/301 interchange. A divided Route 202, in place from the Capital Beltway to Perrywood, would be extended, and the raised highway would follow a new path to connect with 301 just north of Route 4.

South of Upper Marlboro, the projected "tentative" right of way would bypass developed commercial areas on both sides while slicing into undeveloped land immediately west, including Rosaryville State Park and 24 acres where Warren Armstrong has lived most of his life.

"When I was a kid," said Armstrong, 67, "this was a little, winding two-lane road but still the main road between New York and Florida. Before the interstates, it was all woods. We cleared the land, and there were no neighbors to speak of, no shopping center or anything. Then they widened it, finished one lane, then added a second lane. . . . Plus, the area has built up so much, there is a lot of local traffic."

Up and down the road, life is defined by today's swelling currents of stop-and-go traffic and by visions--both comforting and threatening--of a nonstop thruway future.

For a few miles south from Route 50, the highway is six lanes wide as it passes Bowie's bulging new shopping centers, then narrows to four with a miles-long median containing woods, houses, businesses, even a farm or two extending south of 214. North of Upper Marlboro, the road takes on a rural character, with farms on both sides.

Where 301 meets Upper Marlboro's Main Street, Route 725, and south past the Route 4 interchange, there are gas-and-go and fast-food outlets, car sales lots and shopping centers. Continuing south, it's country again, except for commercial nodes at Osborne Road and Marlton Avenue.

At Cheltenham, there's a general store and post office, where Roy Vermillion brings the morning mail up the road from Charles County, a 19-mile "bumper-to-bumper" ride that takes him 40 minutes.

At Brandywine, the small 1940s community of Gwynn Park forms an island between the original southbound and newer northbound lanes of 301. A short distance south, the highway merges with Route 5 just north of Charles County.

Then, for eight miles, there is continuous commercial development through Waldorf, with more lanes and more lights, almost to White Plains. There's a smaller commercial strip at La Plata, then countryside to the Potomac River.

The future there is less defined than farther north, in Prince George's, where the basic alignment has been in the county master plan since the early 1990s. In Charles County, residents, politicians, business leaders and highway engineers are divided over whether 301 should bypass Waldorf or be upgraded where it is.

Merchants along 301 cater to local and through traffic, including retirees who prefer the slower pace of the older highway to the sometimes killing speed of Interstate 95. "I mean, let's face it," said Bob Borrell, of Whistle Stop Antiques, in White Plains. "You don't find antique stores on 95. Today, we've had 10 different customers from Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia."

And some worry about losing such businesses, whether the road is upgraded or bypassed. "I live in Waldorf, and it's pure havoc up there, but I like to stop at the little shops, and I'm afraid they would close," said Paulette Clay, supervisor of the Crain Highway Information Center, which registers 500 visitors daily, just north of the Potomac River bridge.

Although the route through Charles County is undecided, the basic path of the expanded road in Prince George's is charted in 12 pages of maps--part of the state's U.S. 301 Access Control Study, published in March with limited distribution. The Prince George's Planning Board has a single copy, available for review at its offices in Upper Marlboro.

"This is a living document and may be updated periodically," says the report, which also recommends additional service roads at points along the route.

The current southbound lanes are to become a service road past Cleo's Motel and Restaurant just south of Upper Marlboro, one of nine mostly mid-century motels along 301 in Prince George's. When Cleopatra Curtis opened the motel in 1953, it was among the few spots along 301 where black travelers could stay, and the highway was two lanes wide.

"The more highways they build, the more cars are going to be out there," Curtis lamented. "I never in my life thought that this part of the country would be developed, not ever. I remember when this was nothing but cornfields, tobacco fields, hunting and fishing. It was my dream to retire here to the country." Now she wonders how she'll get to and from work, on opposite sides of the road. "Just about the time I get in my rocking chair to relax," she said, "I have to worry about how I get home."

Up the road, north of Upper Marlboro, retired truck driver Stephen Wood, 57, will have no home to come home to; the house and half-acre he bought in 1963 are in the path of future northbound lanes. "We have heard nothing; it's been a rumor," he said. "I don't feel very good about it. I expected to live here for a lifetime."

So did Warren Armstrong, whose property is bordered on three sides by Rosaryville State Park and fronts on 301. His parents bought the place about 1940, when he was a boy, and he farms part of it, raising crops for the suburban home-grown market.

The other day, he paused in front of his fruit and vegetable stand to examine the 301 Access Control Study. It has words such as "preliminary" and "tentative," but he hardly finds them reassuring.

The map shows the superhighway taking his road frontage, right up to his house, and no service lanes to let him get in or out.

"The bottom line is I've lived here all my life, and I'd hate to lose it," he said. "In the scheme of things, it may not be much, but it means a whole lot to us."

In April, he added, "I talked to some state highway people. They assured me this was tentative and may never happen. Still, it makes you worry what the future looks like."

Route 301 At a Glance

Route 301 from its creation to the present:

1922-1927--Robert Crain Highway built to link Baltimore and Southern Maryland.

1937--Truck-auto accident kills seven, sparking demands for road improvement.

1940--Potomac River bridge links Crain Highway/Route 301 and Virginia.

1949-1968--Era of legalized slot machines turns 301 in Charles County into heavily traveled "Little Nevada."

1955--First Waldorf "By-Pass" opened.

1965--Interstate 95 opens to Capital Beltway, easing 301 traffic.

1981--State Highway Administration begins to examine upgrading 301 access controls between Routes 50 and 5. Study expanded in 1982 to include southern stretch to Virginia.

1982--Prince George's general plan proposes access controls to allow 301 to function as an expressway and recommends access to the highway be restricted wherever possible.

1986--Section south of Route 5 becomes part of new eastern bypass corridor study.

1987--Recommendations made for access controls from Route 50 to Charles County line. Further state planning suspended pending results of Washington bypass study.

1990--Prince George's master transportation plan upgrades 301 to "freeway" status, with six to eight lanes plus service roads.

1990--Maryland and Virginia transportation departments conduct joint study of eastern and western bypasses. Draft environmental impact statement released for public hearings. Planning proceeds on detailed alignments and interchanges.

1992--Maryland rejects eastern bypass. Pro-bypass lawmakers agree to accept a new study panel as compromise.

1993--Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer create 301 Study Task Force.

1996--Task force forecasts "transportation meltdown" by 2020 if nothing is done and recommends limited-access freeway from Route 50 to the Potomac River.

1997--Policy Oversight Committee appointed to implement task force recommendations.

1998--Public meetings held on northern corridor on draft environmental impact statement.

1999--Public meetings on southern corridor. Alignment decision expected early in 2001.

CAPTION: Whether U.S. Route 301, shown in this aerial photo near Waldorf, should be upgraded in its current path through the town or bypass has yet to be decided in the superhighway plans.