State officials are about to launch a study that could lead to some relief for Southern Maryland motorists from frequent weekend traffic jams at the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge across the Potomac River

In a wide-ranging discussion this week with Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, Charles County's commissioners and state legislators reviewed the construction of the Hughesville bypass and the potential for a private-public partnership to build a Waldorf bypass.

In La Plata on Monday, Flanagan said Charles County would receive $151 million in state transportation funding over the next six years. But he repeated concerns that state gas tax revenues are declining as motorists drive fewer miles because of rising prices at the pump.

On Tuesday, Flanagan met with officials in Calvert and St. Mary's counties. He told the commissioners in Calvert that the county would receive $87 million over the six-year life of the road-building plan. St. Mary's, he said, is in line for $47 million.

"I still believe we can defend our existing commitments," Flanagan said. "But my message to locals is we're not able to add to the program."

The weekend traffic approaching the two-lane bridge that carries Route 301 across the river is expected to increase by 21 percent by 2025, for a total of 32,500 vehicles. The congestion -- about 24 percent from recreational drivers -- is exacerbated by narrow lanes and commercial trucks that use Route 301 to avoid higher tolls on Interstate 95.

The Maryland Transportation Authority will spend $5 million to look at a range of options, such as building a four-lane bridge or a second span beside the existing bridge. Transportation officials said they are trying to decide on a project before the deck of the existing bridge needs to be replaced, probably in about 15 years.

Following an increasingly popular strategy for building and expanding roads, Del. W. Daniel Mayer (R-Charles) suggested Monday that the state work with private investors to build the Waldorf bypass as a toll road.

"If a garbage truck wants to come through Charles County, make them pay for it," Mayer said, referring to the many tractor-trailer rigs carrying refuse to a large landfill in Virginia.

Flanagan issued a report in July that looked at such partnerships in Virginia and Texas and the possibility of similar projects in Maryland.

"I appreciate your out-of-the-box thinking because the list of projects around the state is so overwhelming," he told Mayer. He added later, "I wouldn't rule it out."

Among the other projects discussed, Flanagan said the $52.6 million Route 5 bypass to the east of Hughesville is on track to open in July 2007. The 2.3-mile road will allow motorists to skirt the traffic jams at Routes 5 and 231.

The state also plans to double the number of parking spaces for commuters at Park and Ride lots throughout Southern Maryland. Starting in the spring, highway workers will begin repaving Leonardtown Road between Route 301 and Mattawoman-Beantown Road in Waldorf.

Charles County transportation officials said Tuesday that they had underestimated the rising costs to widen and build roads, including the cross-county connector. Melvin "Chuck" Beall Jr., who oversees the county's five-year transportation plan, suggested postponing some planned projects or borrowing over a longer period.

Commissioners Candice Quinn Kelly (R-La Plata) and Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret) said the county should balance spending for road construction with demands from the school system and the sheriff's office.

Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf) said, "To delay would be a big mistake" because "we'll incur more costs later."

Calvert County

During his meeting with Calvert officials, Flanagan repeated his warning that his department's budget would be strained.

"We are in a defensive mode right now in terms of protecting the programs that the governor has put out there," he said.

He noted that there are several multibillion-dollar projects in the state -- such as the intercounty connector linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- whose costs could continue to escalate.

Calvert commissioners President David F. Hale (R-Owings) expressed concern that the connector or new mass transit lines in Baltimore could affect local transportation projects.

Flanagan said that his department will focus on keeping major projects within budget but added that Southern Maryland residents should be aware that they could be affected by projects elsewhere in Maryland.

"It will impact you," he said. "We are one state."

Neil J. Pedersen, administrator for the Maryland State Highway Administration, briefed the commissioners on the four major state road projects in Calvert County:

* The $23.5 million reconstruction of the intersection of Routes 2/4 and 231 in Prince Frederick. Construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2007.

* A $2.2 million face-lift of the aging Mount Harmony Road Bridge over Route 260. The old bridge was torn down this summer, and construction of the new one is scheduled to be finished by the end of the year.

* Development of a 0.15-mile east-west road between Routes 2/4 and 765 in Lusby. Engineering is underway, and right-of-way acquisitions are scheduled to begin this year.

* The widening of a 3.8-mile stretch of Route 2/4 in Prince Frederick from four to six lanes. The expanded road will run from south of Route 765 to north of Stoakley Road. Engineering for the project is on hold; an additional $2.4 million is needed for engineering, and an extra $29.8 million is needed for right-of-way acquisition.

Hale also asked officials about a potential timetable for work on an additional span of the frequently congested Thomas Johnson Bridge, which links Solomons and St. Mary's County across the Patuxent River. Pedersen said that there is no funding for it but added that "it won't be too long" before project development begins.

Flanagan briefly mentioned the 23-member task force that is looking for ways to ease congestion on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. One of the options would be to build a bridge between Calvert County and the Eastern Shore.

Although the possibility of Ocean City-bound traffic coming through rural Calvert has worried some residents, Flanagan said the project is probably at least 15 to 20 years away. But he said the state would have to deal with the matter eventually.

"It's a statewide issue which isn't going to go away," he said.

St. Mary's County

In St. Mary's County, the transportation meeting opened on a hopeful note from commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large):

"We know you bring a bag full of money," he told Flanagan on Tuesday. "We'll go ahead and let you open the bag."

But Flanagan struck a cautious note before the commissioners, saying that although the state's transportation trust fund has ballooned to a record size -- a six-year, $13 billion package statewide -- escalating gas prices are sucking away revenue.

In response to the gas prices, and also to the growing congestion of Southern Maryland roads, Flanagan stressed the importance of improving the commuter bus service. He said there are 19 Park and Ride lots in Southern Maryland, with almost 4,000 spaces, and transportation officials are planning to build 4,000 more in coming years.

At the same time, he discouraged the commissioners from pinning their hopes on a light rail service soon and warned that if this course were taken it could bring a "Baltimore City-type of density" to Southern Maryland. In the next five to 10 years, "what we're really talking about is commuter" buses, he said.

State Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's) has long been a proponent of light rail service in the area, though several other local officials, including McKay, oppose it.

St. Mary's Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach) pressed the issue Tuesday, saying light rail in Southern Maryland would be less expensive than in other areas because it is possible to add passenger trains to freight rail lines that run to power plants. Flanagan disputed that and said the rail would have to be rebuilt to accommodate higher-speed passenger trains.

The state officials also updated the commissioners on the progress of road projects. The largest is a $53.3 million upgrade of Chancellors Run Road (Route 237) in Lexington Park. The project would widen the road to a multi-lane highway along a 2.7-mile stretch from Pegg Road to Route 235. The process has begun to acquire the right of way from 110 properties, and planners expect construction to start in late 2007, Pedersen said.

Another project, on a longer timeline, is the $1.4 million widening of Route 5 in Point Lookout State Park. Engineering funding is scheduled to be spread out until 2007, and no construction start date was identified this week. Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills) said tourist numbers are down at the park, and he thinks the poor road conditions have something to do with it.

"I would just urge, if at all possible, to at least stay on that timetable, if not hasten it," he said. "There's a need to do that."

Staff writer Joshua Partlow contributed to this report.