ICC plan is example of 'Dumb Growth'

This Just In...

October 25, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

ONE ASPECT OF THE debate over the billion-dollar Intercounty Connector bugs me. It's the claim that, without the ICC, Maryland is doomed to become an economic backwater. The pro-highway crowd, those conservative suits who are always bellyaching that Maryland has an anti-business climate, say we need the ICC to connect companies in the job-rich, high-tech I-270 corridor in Rockville to I-95, the port of Baltimore and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

This is where I pull over to ask a few questions.

Why do high-tech companies need a highway? If they do business on the Information Highway, why do they need one made of asphalt? Do they make microchips at Bethlehem Steel? Do bioengineering companies move a lot of container cargo? You know what I'm saying? When I think high-tech, teamsters and longshoremen do not come to mind.

I was happy to get Douglas Duncan on the phone the other night -- he was headed to a fund-raiser for Baltimore mayoral candidate Martin O'Malley -- to help me understand the argument. Duncan is the Montgomery County executive. He was elected to that post in 1994, and he was mayor of sprawling Rockville before that. Duncan is bullish on running the ICC from I-270 to I-95. Some people think he could parlay the issue into a campaign for governor in 2002.

First, Duncan says, traffic congestion in his county, along the Capital Beltway, is horrific. The ICC will end that long nightmare. People will be able to zip between Laurel and Rockville, avoiding the Beltway.

Second, Duncan says, the ICC is about the Maryland economy. The many biotech companies that have sprung up in Rockville and Bethesda, near the National Institutes of Health, have experienced tremendous job growth. That "new economy" is at a critical mass, and Duncan says it's time to connect Montgomery County to the rest of the state. The rest of the state, Prince George's County and Baltimore, will benefit from this, Duncan says. (Meaning, I presume, that more people will have the high privilege of driving from Baltimore to Rockville for work. Wow! Is that exciting!)

I say this to the county executive: If Montgomery County didn't have the roads, if you didn't have the physical and human "infrastructure" to handle this "new economy," why did you put it there? If the executives of these high-tech companies like to use BWI, then wouldn't they be wise to move into office space vacated by, say, the defense contractors around the airport? Wouldn't that be smart growth?

I don't know, friends. Sounds like the main benefit of the ICC is that it would knock a half-hour off some high-tech exec's trip to the airport. Hey, you Wunderkinds: Sometimes you can't have it all.

Duncan's view is typical of the thinking of the political class in Maryland. The Baltimore County executive, Dutch Ruppersberger, thinks much the same way: Pull in jobs and new development so you can brag about it, and worry about whether your growth was smart later -- perhaps after you've moved on to another office and someone else has to worry about "infrastructure" and constituents complaining about traffic.

Ruppersburger, not surprisingly, came out in favor of the ICC, mostly to score points (and potential campaign contributions) from the business community. Duncan was in downtown Baltimore again last week, singing the ICC song to the choir of the conservative Maryland Business for Responsive Government.

They're New Democrats, I guess. New Democrats are a lot like Old Republicans. They believe government is most useful when it serves business. They'll talk a good game about protecting the environment but, deep down, they dismiss green thinkers as a political fringe. They embrace Smart Growth in this increasingly crowded, oddly shaped, relatively small state of ours, but not with any passion. They don't invest much political capital in mass transit. They think the solution to congestion is to build more highways. You hardly ever hear them express concern about vehicle emissions and polluted air. You don't hear them encouraging Marylanders to live where they work to avoid longer and longer commutes.

People, including a lot of his Democrats, knock our governor as untrustworthy -- in this case because, according to Duncan, he broke a promise to back the ICC. It was suggested in this newspaper recently that Parris N. Glendening has tried to kill the ICC only to nail a Cabinet post should Al "Earth in the Balance" Gore be elected president.

Maybe. Glendening is pretty slick.

But he's also bullish on Smart Growth -- the idea that government should discourage further suburban sprawl, that it should encourage reinvestment in cities and older suburbs, save open space and protect the trees and waters that protect and nourish the Chesapeake Bay. You can question Glendening's motivations, but not his advocacy of a future-focused policy such as Smart Growth. Other governors are going to be following his lead.

Government does a lot of short-sighted things -- prisons without rehabilitation, drug wars without addiction intervention, allowing huge suburban development without adequate roads or schools -- but Smart Growth represents one of the few government policies that's holistic. Sticking 18 miles of concrete between two suburbs isn't Smart Growth. It looks more like a very expensive, outdated solution to years of Dumb Growth. It's a loser. If I were going to run for governor in 2002, I'd find another issue.

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