P.G. presses for county connector But Howard officials says $1 billion road threatens rural area

December 24, 1997|By CRAIG TIMBERG AND CANDUS THOMSON | CRAIG TIMBERG AND CANDUS THOMSON,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Ed Lee contributed to this article.

Two Prince George's County officials are pushing to build the Intercounty Connector -- a massive, controversial road project designed to ease Washington-area traffic -- through lightly populated areas of western Howard County.

The new proposal calls for connecting Route 32 on the western edge of Columbia to Gaithersburg with a 13-mile highway. Cost estimates run as high as $1 billion.

The project would almost certainly spark a regional battle between traffic-clogged Washington suburbs and Howard County, which for decades has sought to preserve its western, rural areas from heavy development.

The idea's main backers are Laurel Mayor Frank P. Casula and state Sen. Arthur Dorman, who represents parts of the Laurel area. Both are Democrats fighting long-standing proposals to build the Intercounty Connector from Gaithersburg to Laurel -- through many established neighborhoods.

Dorman plans to submit a bill in the 1998 General Assembly session asking state highway officials to include Route 32 in their study of the Intercounty Connector, often called Washington's Outer Beltway.

That would be the first step in a process that would take years -- if not decades -- before any road construction.

"The current study area gets it through Laurel, and you can't put a major road like that through a residential area," said Dorman. The Howard County route "keeps it in wide open spaces," he added.

Howard officials yesterday criticized the proposal, saying it would threaten the character of western Howard, most of which lacks water and sewer service and is zoned for farms and large-lot homes.

'I'll fight this idea'

"We're talking about solving Montgomery County's transportation problems on the back of Howard County," said state Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Clarksville Republican who also represents Laurel. "I'll fight this idea every inch of the way."

As proposed, the highway would likely go through Clarksville and Highland before crossing the Patuxent River into Montgomery County.

In earlier plans the highway was almost entirely in Montgomery ++ County, with six lanes connecting Laurel to Gaithersburg, near Interstate 270, a major north-south highway with a concentration of high-tech companies and other businesses.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, said ++ he would study the new plan, but added, "Right now, I can't think of many pros. I can think of a lot of cons."

Supporters of the Intercounty Connector say it is needed to ease traffic on the congested Washington Beltway and help check the defection of high-tech businesses to Northern Virginia.

Regional transportation plans first mentioned an east-west highway through Montgomery County in 1953.

State officials selected a route and began buying land for a road between Gaithersburg and Laurel in 1984. But a series of environmental hurdles has stalled the project.

EPA rejection

In August, the EPA rejected one plan that has since been dropped by state highway officials.

Soon after, the Montgomery County Council urged the state to seek alternatives -- a move seen by some as signing the highway's death certificate and by others as putting off a politically unpopular decision until after the 1998 elections.

Laurel officials have also fought efforts to build the Intercounty Connector on parts of Route 198, the main east-west road into Laurel. It was opposition to that proposal that gave birth to the idea of building the road in Howard.

Proponents such as Casula, the Laurel mayor, say the state could save money by using the existing Route 32 as part of the Intercounty Connector.

"That's the best way to go," Casula said. "Sure, you're going to have some controversy in Howard County, but there's a lot of right of way, a lot of room."

Pushing part of the Intercounty Connector into Howard might ease the political battle in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, but the idea has limited support even there.

"The [Route] 32 corridor was designed for a different set of traffic than what the [Intercounty Connector] was designed for," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "I don't know what that would do to the [Route] 32 traffic volume."

The plan was received even less warmly in Howard, where few knew of the proposal before yesterday.

"I would think that it would be very popular among Montgomery (( County residents if they pushed the connector up here," said Peter J. Oswald, a Fulton slow-growth activist. "I'm very apprehensive about any proposals to build a freeway. Environmentally, it's terribly destructive."

The highway plan might also run into trouble with Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth plan, passed by the General Assembly this year. Smart Growth favors building roads and other state projects in developed areas -- not rural areas such as western Howard.

Dorman, the state senator, says the Intercounty Connector could be built with few highway exits. But growth experts say development almost always follows road expansions.

The Intercounty Connector might also face environmental issues Howard. Any highway from Columbia to Gaithersburg would have to cross numerous streams and the Patuxent River -- perhaps at the Triadelphia Reservoir.

Del. John S. Morgan, a Republican representing Laurel and southern Howard, predicted Dorman's proposal will have a tough time in the General Assembly.

"Anybody who would be in the path of the road should take it seriously," Morgan said, "but I don't think it's going anywhere."

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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