State proposes routes for highway

Intercounty Connector plan is on fast track

October 31, 2003|By Cyril T. Zaneski | Cyril T. Zaneski,SUN STAFF

The Ehrlich administration showed off a new fast-track process for a controversial highway project yesterday, proposing two possible routes for the Intercounty Connector in the Washington suburbs and announcing plans to hold public meetings on the proposals in just two weeks.

The two routes for the proposed $1.7 billion highway follow corridors drawn in a 1997 draft plan but incorporate what state officials call "environmental stewardship features" intended to lessen damage to parks, wetlands and forests, and ease the highway's visual blight on communities it would skirt.

"We are, in fact, hoping to do more than prevent damage," Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said. "We are looking for ways to enhance the environment."

Opponents of the highway said the revised proposals and the fast-track federal review would not fix what ails the plan. "The bottom line is this is a very expensive road that will not solve congestion problems measurably in the D.C. area," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the nonprofit growth-management group 1000 Friends of Maryland. "Why are we spending all this money?"

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has made the ICC his administration's top transportation priority and has gotten a boost from the Republican White House.

Stalled by environmental concerns since it was proposed in 1950, rejected by federal environmental agencies six years ago and killed by Ehrlich's Democratic predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, the ICC is among six road projects nationally receiving expedited environmental reviews under an executive order that President Bush issued in February.

The revved-up review allowed state and federal transportation planners to select two proposed highway corridors in six months instead of the almost three years the work would have taken under standard procedures, State Highway Administration administrator Neil J. Pederson said. If all goes smoothly, engineers should have a project design ready by next fall.

Accelerating the process in this case meant bringing officials from 28 federal, state and local agencies together for two meetings to discuss the plan instead of passing written questions and answers back and forth over many months, Pederson said. "We are still procedurally doing every step," he said. "But agencies are doing some activities in parallel instead of doing them in sequence."

But Steve Caflisch, the transportation chairman for the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter, said the fast-track process means the ICC "is greased" for federal approval - and for lawsuits from highway opponents under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. It requires that all significant projects undergo an evaluation of alternatives and an analysis of effects.

"They have shortened all sorts of input on the project," Caflisch said. "Everybody's under intense pressure to get things done very quickly. ... There will be conformity to the bare letter of the law, if that much, but certainly not to the spirit."

Flanagan, though, said the ICC team would not shrink from agency reviews or public criticism. "This is not a stay-at-home-and-complain exercise," he said. "This is a get-out-and-make-your voice-heard process."

Flanagan expressed hope that several design elements would soothe some of the project's critics and limit damage to wetlands and forests.

Among them are reducing the number of interchanges from 12 to 6, a narrowed roadway "footprint" featuring slimmer medians and shoulders, longer bridges at stream crossings, and including storm water treatment devices. The state would also use express bus lanes and find opportunities to build hiking and biking trails "where appropriate," the proposal says.

The ICC study team has scheduled three public meetings on the proposals. The meetings will take the form of workshops in which people can question planners and comment on the proposed corridors as well as a "no build" option.

The workshops will be from 2 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at American Legion Post 60, 2 Main St., Laurel; from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 15 at James Blake High School, 300 Norwood Road, Silver Spring; and from 2 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 19 at Bohrer Park Activity Center, 506 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg.

People can also comment through the project Web site, www.iccstudy.org, or ask questions of the study team by calling a toll-free number, 1-866-462-0020.

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