WALDORF - If automobile traffic were water, Waldorf would be the kink in a garden hose.
In this Southern Maryland town, commutes south from Washington become steering-wheel-punching nightmares. Motorists returning from work encounter a four-mile stretch of lights on roads clogged with traffic from countless strip malls and restaurants.
Weekend traffic in Waldorf - which is basically one big suburban shopping center more than it is a town - has gotten so bad that some residents simply avoid the roads.
"We're strangling on our traffic, but for whatever reason we seem incapable of building roads," says Murray Levy, president of the Charles County commissioners. Levy has supported a bypass around Waldorf since the recommendation was made by a task force in 1996, but he is frustrated that little has been accomplished.
"In 40 years, you'll be back, I'll be in a wheelchair and you'll say, `How's the fight going - you getting a new bypass?'" Levy says. "Well, by then it will be a heart bypass."
It's not a new mess. County and state officials have spent the past eight years studying ways to relieve the congestion. But each proposed solution seems to infuriate someone. Building a bypass around Waldorf would damage wetlands, say environmentalists. Transforming the current road through Waldorf - Route 301 - into a highway would shut down businesses, say business owners.
As for doing nothing? That's not an option, says everyone.
Like parts of Carroll and Harford counties, this area of Charles County has undergone a metamorphosis in the past two decades, turning from rural farmland into bedroom communities. And how the gridlock is handled, some here say, could shape the region's future and determine how much growth Southern Maryland is going to allow.
Route 301, constructed when this area was little more than tobacco farms, has become a congested artery that funnels rush-hour traffic to and from Washington, connects motorists from Baltimore and Annapolis to Southern Maryland and is inundated with shopping traffic.
According to a study by the State Highway Administration, more than 57,000 vehicles passed through the center of Waldorf on Route 301 each weekday in 1998. By the year 2020 the number is expected to jump by 39 percent to 80,000.
The state has spent $15 million studying possible road improvements around Waldorf and buying land to prepare for construction. But relief is at least five years away, highway officials say.
A big reason for the delay is the staunch opposition to new roads by environmental groups.
A limited-access bypass highway could take vehicles off Route 301 near the Prince George's-Charles county line and deliver them back onto the road north of La Plata - avoiding Waldorf and its lights altogether. But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, among other advocacy groups, opposed the plan.
George Maurer, a senior planner with the foundation, says a bypass on either side of Waldorf would threaten ecologically sensitive areas - such as the Zekiah Swamp and Mattawoman Creek - some of which serve as spawning grounds for the Chesapeake Bay.
Maurer says improving access into Southern Maryland would also encourage more development. "This is a unique and important environmental resource and it would be a tremendous insult," he says, adding that, "the more sprawl we have, the more polluted runoff you have."
The environment side won a major victory last month. Several federal agencies - including the Fish and Wildlife Service and Environmental Protection Agency - said publicly that it would be almost impossible for them to approve any bypass around Waldorf because of the environmental impact. Under federal law, their approval is required.
The state is studying the only remaining option - an expansion of Route 301. But some in Charles County worry that turning Route 301 into a highway with access roads would make it hard for drivers to reach businesses and eventually would shut many down. Some county officials also worry they would have trouble attracting new companies if the county's main business district becomes a highway.
More than 40 businesses along Route 301 might have to be closed just for construction to begin, the highway administration has said.
Andrew Dixon is president of Ken Dixon Automotive, a car dealership along Route 301 that was opened by his father in 1961, when traffic jams were unheard of here. Dixon, who serves on a citizens' advisory group studying traffic problems, says shoppers and commuters are putting a strain on Route 301, and that steering commuters off the road and onto a bypass seems the only viable option.
"We have two types of traffic with two goals, and you're in each other's way," he says of the current road. "I'm a proponent of people having as many rights as frogs and fish," says Dixon, who doesn't understand the objections from environmentalists.