MediCorp Health System, the company that owns the Fredericksburg region's only hospital, announced yesterday that it plans to open a second hospital just to the north, in Stafford County.

A new hospital, which could open between 2008 and 2010, would reduce crowding at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, MediCorp said. Mary Washington sees 90,000 people a year in its emergency room -- one of the busiest in Virginia.

It also would mean quicker access to health care for the 112,000 residents of Stafford, one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. Because of ever-increasing traffic, a ride to the hospital can take a half-hour.

Officials in Stafford were elated.

"This is one of the biggest days for economic development in Stafford County's history," said Tim Baroody, director of economic development and legislative affairs.

Stafford, like other communities around Fredericksburg, has been focusing on trying to create better-paying jobs in the region to keep residents from getting on the highways north every morning, as many do before dawn. Mary Washington employs 2,700 people.

The size and other details of the proposed hospital, which would have to secure various permits from the state, weren't yet firm, said MediCorp spokeswoman Kathleen Allenbaugh. She said the hospital was to be "full service," with emergency services, inpatient and outpatient imaging, lab services and surgery. The location would be on one of three tracts MediCorp is looking at buying, and offices for physicians also would be built there.

The tight squeeze for beds at Mary Washington has been an issue since the 1990s, when Allenbaugh said growth quickly surpassed demographic forecasts. MediCorp had been looking for opportunities to expand in the region and added 94 beds to Mary Washington last year, bringing it to 400 beds. Still, officials knew it would be only a matter of time before they would need more space.

The not-for-profit MediCorp has been looking for about 16 months at sites throughout the region and decided that Stafford was best, Allenbaugh said.

Baroody said businesses considering Stafford in the past have noted the absence of a hospital. About half of Stafford residents use Mary Washington, he said, citing anecdotal evidence, and the other half head north to Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge or to Fairfax County.

"Most successful communities strive for certain assets, including higher education, recreational and cultural opportunities and quality health care," he said. "This is a historic day for Stafford."