Intercounty Connector arrives at critical juncture

Transportation

Outlook 2004 : Turning Points

January 11, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Salvaged from dusty shelves where they have languished for years, designs for the Intercounty Connector will get their most serious look this year thanks to the backing of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Seeking to follow through on a campaign pledge he made in 2002, Ehrlich is pushing for construction of the controversial highway proposed for the Washington suburbs. The project, he said, will help relieve congestion along the state's successful technology corridor along Interstate 270 in Montgomery County and better link that area with the port of Baltimore, research universities and workers along the Interstate 95 corridor.

The proposal has been around since the 1950s. Federal environmental regulators had rejected it and, as a near final blow, a planning study was stalled in 1999 by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Glendening also attempted without success to sell the property purchased for the right of way so the road could never be built, but the state Board of Public Works blocked the sale.

Now the project appears to be turning a corner this year.

Ehrlich has made it his top transportation priority and calls 2004 pivotal in crafting designs and lining up funds to start building the $1.7 billion connector.

To help win the battle for public opinion, the governor and his top transportation deputies filled buses with lawmakers and reporters Tuesday for a two-hour tour of the proposed routes. The administration's message is that the ICC will not only ease traffic woes, but also make commuting safer and leave the environment and historic landmarks intact. Ehrlich said his goal is to break ground on the project in 2006 if enough preparatory work is completed this year.

State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said the road would be paid through tolls and bonds backed by future federal transportation dollars, rather than the Transportation Trust Fund, which generally pays for road projects but has been depleted in recent years.

State leaders will review financing alternatives put forward by the Ehrlich administration during the legislative session that begins Wednesday.

Some lawmakers have already criticized the plan, saying interest on the bonds could add $100 million to the highway's cost and jeopardize road projects in other parts of the state.

Opposition to the ICC hasn't abated, even if foes have lost the support they once enjoyed in the governor's office. Many residents along the proposed routes, environmentalists and some business leaders contend the highway would add to pollution and sprawl and consume open space. The state would acquire and demolish up to 50 homes for the project.

"The ICC just makes it easier to live farther away from work and doesn't solve any problems," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of a nonprofit growth-management group called 1000 Friends of Maryland, which supports improvements in public transportation instead.

"It's costly and unfair to the rest of the state," she said. "It's an old response. If the roads are congested, let's build another highway, but I-270 is more than a dozen lanes wide and it's still headline news everyday on the traffic report."

The renewed push to build the road has heartened others, including many in the business community.

"Many of our members say if we don't have an effective system of transportation that the economy will not grow," said Kathleen Snyder, president and chief executive of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. Her group supports increasing Motor Vehicle Administration registration fees and gas taxes to bolster the Transportation Trust Fund so the ICC is not built to the exclusion of other projects around the state.

Officials at the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the public shipping terminals at the port of Baltimore, said millions of dollars in business is at stake.

"We really sell the road system in Maryland," said James J. White, executive director of the port administration. "We say we can get to one-third of the U.S. population within a 24-hour drive. We need to be able to maintain that."

IKEA, the Swedish home furnishings retailer, noted access to the port and highways when it opened a 1.7-million- square-foot distribution center in Cecil County's Perryville in 2002.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said he was anguished recently to hear a local biotech official tell a German executive who was considering a move to the state that getting workers to the building was his toughest challenge.

"Companies talk about [leaving Maryland] every day," said Duncan, a longtime supporter of the project. "There is an economic development need, but there is also a traffic congestion need for the ICC."

TIMELINE

1950

An intercounty connector in suburban Washington is proposed by the National Capital Planning Commission.

1999

Gov. Parris N. Glendening halts a planning study and seeks unsuccessfully to sell land reserved for the connector's right-of-way.

2004

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. calls the ICC his top transportation priority and pushes for major funding, environmental and design reviews to begin the project.

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