Ehrlich supports Intercounty Connector

Stance may signal he's leaning toward running for governor

March 06, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The topic of the day on Capitol Hill was steel tariffs, an issue Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has pushed for years on behalf of industry laborers who live in his congressional district.

But yesterday, the Timonium Republican had somewhere else to be: a committee room in Annapolis, where state legislators revived a decades-old argument over a proposed highway through Montgomery County.

For those seeking clues about Ehrlich's plans, the congressman's appearance offered the strongest evidence to date that he is leaning more toward a run for governor than a re-election bid.

"We have an exploratory committee for governor," Ehrlich said in an interview after his brief committee testimony. "And one of the things that we have found out in the context of our exploration is the importance of transportation in the Washington suburbs, and the overwhelming support for the Intercounty Connector."

For Ehrlich or any gubernatorial candidate, the path to Government House leads through Montgomery County - the state's most populous jurisdiction. And the most pressing concern of county voters, surveys show, is traffic congestion.

The $1 billion-plus connector road would be a welcome solution in the eyes of business leaders and others. Proponents of the highway to link Interstate 270 with Interstate 95 say it would relieve congestion on the Washington Beltway and provide easier access to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Critics say the benefits are overstated, and the environmental damage would be severe.

"On one hand, it's a road. But on the other hand, it's taken on a life of its own," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler. "It's a litmus test. It's like abortion. In Montgomery County, we have the luxury of a low crime rate and a good public school system, so transportation becomes the No. 1 issue."

Chance to win votes

It is an issue where Ehrlich smells an opportunity to win votes while contrasting himself with the Glendening-Townsend administration.

A poll conducted for The Sun in January found that transportation was the top issue Montgomery voters wanted the General Assembly to address during the 90-day session. Seventy-one percent of Washington-area voters called traffic congestion a major problem or crisis, vs. 46 percent in the Baltimore region.

"It should send a signal of how important we think the ICC is in Montgomery County and in the governor's race," said Paul E. Schurick, an aide to Ehrlich. The congressman appeared yesterday at a hearing on a resolution urging the governor to move ahead with a new environmental study of the ICC proposal.

In September 1999, Gov. Parris N. Glendening halted almost 50 years of planning by announcing that he would not build the road, and wanted to sell the right-of-way acquired by the state. An alliance of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Richard N. Dixon on the three-member Board of Public Works blocked the property sale.

Townsend's position

As traffic congestion worsens in Montgomery, many observers believe the ICC could become the first issue on which Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend makes a significant break with her former running mate.

For now, Townsend is playing it safe, avoiding alienating the environmentalists who oppose construction. "You know my position: Examine all options," Townsend said yesterday.

The lieutenant governor's view rankles Republicans in Annapolis.

"While Kathleen is taking the bold position of looking at it - even though she's had eight years to look at it already - here is a congressman who is willing to travel to Annapolis to fill the void of executive leadership," said Del. James F. Ports Jr. of Baltimore County.

Ehrlich said Glendening and Townsend "have jacked us around on this" for years.

"My point is, conceptually, it makes sense," Ehrlich said. "You don't need to be an engineer to figure that out. It needs to be built."

Others feel different. "The ICC would be very destructive to the environment," Montgomery County Council Vice President Derick Berlage said yesterday in a statement announcing a council vote against the resolution. "It has been - and continues to be - a billion-and-a-half dollar boondoggle."

As for the ultimate question - Does Ehrlich's appearance mean he's in the governor's race? - the congressman is telling reporters to attend his fund-raiser March 25. A major announcement is expected around that time, he said.

"We are in the final stages of the decision," Schurick said.

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