Two events earlier this month offer more than a ray of hope to thousands of area commuters who, with irritating regularity, find themselves stuck in traffic on the Capital Beltway.

A group of community and business leaders announced the formation of the DO IT (Develop Outer Interstate Thruways) Coalition. The new organization will carry out research, education and advocacy activities for improvements to the Capital Beltway, its feeder systems and congestion-relieving Beltway bypasses.

The governors of Maryland and Virginia agreed to hire jointly a consultant to investigate and assess possible routes for those bypasses. The two states will share the cost of the $1.5 million study, which will take up to 18 months to complete.

An outside observer might wonder why we're so concerned about Beltway safety and traffic congestion. In fact, some of the newer residents in our area might ask whether we are making too much of our traffic problems.

Unfortunately, Beltway congestion is not a figment of our imaginations -- nor a product of our nightmares. It is a fact-of-life trend caused by the increasing growth, expansion and development in suburban Maryland and Virginia.

Fact: Between 1975 and 1985, the population of Maryland, Virginia and the District increased by 831,000, while the total number of vehicles soared to 1.74 million.

Fact: These new residents, combined with the more than 200,000 additional jobs that were created in the suburbs between 1979 and 1985, have placed tremendous stress and strain on our local highway systems in general and Washington's "Main Street" -- the Capital Beltway -- in particular.

But you don't have to be a rocket scientist to explain what happens when greater numbers of people travel on a limited number of roads. The figures speak for themselves.

In Montgomery County, for example, it took 20 minutes more in 1986 than it did in 1985 to complete the 15-mile evening trip on that portion of the Beltway between the George Washington Memorial Parkway and Interstate 95.

Severe congestion now extends over some 20 miles (about one-third) of the Beltway, including Fairfax County near the American Legion Bridge (Cabin John Bridge) and portions near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Rush-hour speeds in these areas have dropped to an average of 15 to 25 mph.

But as bad as you think things are today, they can only get worse tomorrow. Traffic experts predict that by the year 2000:

the average Beltway commuter will spend almost two additional hours in his or her car each week;

there will be up to 40,000 more vehicles traveling on various portions of this vital transportation link;

speeds of 15 to 25 mph or less can be expected on one-half of the Beltway in peak hours (another 20 miles will be traveled at speeds of 30 to 40 mph);

congestion could cost users up to $180 million annually in time, gas consumption and accident losses; and

all this assumes that both the Intercounty Connector in Maryland and the Springfield Bypass in Virginia are built and in use by the year 2000.

But these projections can be adjusted positively. The prospects for reduced Beltway congestion, faster rush-hour speeds and increased safety for motorists do not have to remain the dreams of commuters stuck in traffic. We can all begin to turn these dreams into reality now by making a strong and unwavering commitment to plan, fund and build these important bypasses. Otherwise, Washington's Main Street may very well become Washington's main parking lot.

Michael D. Barnes

was a Democratic representative

from Maryland and is chairman

of the DO IT Coalition.