EVEN AS THE Intercounty Connector races down a fast track greased by the Ehrlich and Bush administrations, state officials offer a presumed, not precise, case for its benefits.
That was evident last week at a meeting of the state task force studying the roughly $10.5 billion gap between Maryland's transportation needs and available funds through 2010. There, Neil J. Pedersen, state highway administrator, was asked if the state had quantified the benefits of the long-proposed 18-mile highway tying the Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 corridors. Mr. Pedersen replied that that awaits study by the University of Maryland - explaining later that the study will be done next year as part of the project's environmental impact statements.
Given that the ICC has been debated for decades, that some worry it actually would drain jobs from Prince George's County, that its estimated cost is $1.7 billion and that public hearings begin this fall on various routes, it's surprising Ehrlich administration officials don't see the need to detail for Marylanders the ICC's potential bang.
Sure, it's logical to more tightly link the state's top economic engine with BWI Airport and Baltimore. Sure, the ICC may modestly reduce costly congestion on the Washington Beltway. But the strapped state ought not to be undertaking an investment of this scale without rigorous study of the benefits of building a limited-access highway in this corridor, irrespective of its specific route.
Robert L. Flanagan, the state transportation secretary, says that's not needed now because there's already a strong "consensus" as to the ICC's benefits, one reflected in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s election last fall. That bit of hubris is further testimony that the governor's team is determined to build the ICC as a political statement to Montgomery County and the state's business community. The goal: a 2006 groundbreaking, the ultimate re-election photo-op.
To that end, Mr. Ehrlich has employed his Bush administration connections to streamline the federal approval process. At the meeting last week, Mr. Pedersen bragged that the last time the state sought ICC approval the first federal step took two years. This time, it only took six weeks.
And the state is moving fast to come up with creative ways to drum up the $1.7 billion at a time when it can't even keep up with its road and transit system preservation needs. But even if the ICC becomes a toll road, it still may eat up $60 million a year in state funds for 30 years.
That kind of commitment makes detailing the road's economic benefits even more critical, independent of and long before environmental impact statements. Marylanders deserve - and good management demands - a public appraisal of the ICC's benefits sooner, not later.