Fast track to where?

June 19, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. vows to break ground on the Intercounty Connector - the long-debated proposed highway from Gaithersburg to Laurel - if he has to grab a shovel himself. And he's done an admirable job of putting the costly, controversial road on the fast track, from personally appealing to President Bush to convening a summit of 28 federal, state and local agencies last week.

After more than 50 years of often-acrimonious politics, the ICC has been brought back from a coma by Mr. Ehrlich. During his campaign, his support for the 18-mile highway highlighted his differences with his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, who all but killed the project. By speeding forward with the road, Mr. Ehrlich curries favor in the D.C. suburbs, one-upping a potential Democratic challenger, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Apart from the pervasive politics, there remain unresolved, highly technical arguments about the road's environmental impact and even whether it would lessen the Washington suburbs' crippling traffic jams.

This newspaper has supported the ICC as a catalyst for economic development by linking the I-270 and I-95 corridors - tying Montgomery's booming high-tech corridor with BWI airport, Johns Hopkins and Baltimore's planned biotech park. State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan says that would "transform" the state, with big benefits for Baltimore - an argument that continues to have strong appeal.

But at the same time, the ICC's renewed prospects provoke serious qualms:

* Will streamlined federal environmental reviews mean less concern for the ICC's impact? At last week's summit, a federal official - asked about earlier negative studies - declared, "What's past is past." Mr. Flanagan says the state won't get a free pass on environmental concerns, and talks of addressing potential problems with creative alternatives. We're eager to see them.

* The ICC push comes as the state transportation budget is suffering, with $300 million transferred to the state general fund, cuts in aid to counties, and mass transit cuts and fare increases. The ICC, estimated at $1.5 billion, will eat up a big share of limited funds for new projects, further tilting state transportation spending toward Washington at Baltimore's expense. Mr. Flanagan says the solution to these financial problems is to charge tolls on the ICC.

* Mr. Ehrlich's ICC drive contrasts starkly with his lukewarm stance on the Baltimore regional rail plan - now in stiff competition for federal transit funds to start building a new Red Line crossing the city. Mr. Ehrlich wasn't even going to seek funds for the line until Baltimore-area leaders rallied; the state's planning budget for the line next year falls way short. U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Baltimore Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, says he hasn't seen much Washington lobbying by Maryland officials - even as Michigan's governor and other top state officials are doing so for their transit projects.

The ICC is a longtime dream - of commuters battling the Washington Beltway, of financial interests seeking to parlay the assets of the I-270 and I-95 corridors, of many of Mr. Ehrlich's top supporters. But it must be environmentally sound and can't undercut Baltimore's mass transit needs.

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