The Inter-County Connector will be built along a southerly route that state and local officials have backed for decades, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday, a decision that minimizes the number of homes that will be razed but which federal officials have warned would cause greater environmental disruption than a northern path.
Standing by a traffic-clogged intersection in Rockville, Ehrlich said state highway officials hope to finalize the exact path for the road by the end of the year and begin construction in 2006 - potentially before next year's election.
The governor acknowledged, though, that the $2.4 billion road connecting Gaithersburg to Interstate 95 could be delayed or blocked by lawsuits from opponents. About two dozen protesters crowded behind him as he made his announcement, chanting, "ICC makes traffic worse, takes $3 billion from your purse."
"We'll listen to the voices of the past for a moment here," Ehrlich said, gesturing at the placard-waving crowd behind him. "The voices of the past have been defeated today. ... The vocal majority finally wins."
The governor said the road, which is designed to give motorists a way to cut across the northern Washington suburbs without driving on the congested Capital Beltway, is necessary to maintain the economy and quality of life for Montgomery County residents.
The route Ehrlich chose has been a part of Montgomery County's master development plan for decades, and the state has bought much of the land that would be needed to build along that route over the years. About 57 homes lie along the path Ehrlich chose.
But an Environmental Protection Agency assessment of the project in February objected to the southern route, saying it posed risks to wetlands, streams, forests and animal habitats, including the only place in the area where brown trout spawn in the wild.
The EPA found less fault with a northern route, but choosing that alternative would have forced the state to seize about 83 homes and buy more land, a prospect ICC backers said they feared would have killed the project altogether.
"The northern route is not right," said Del. Carol S. Petzold, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It makes a huge difference; a huge, huge, huge difference."
EPA objections have helped scuttle the ICC twice before. But Ehrlich said his administration has had "hundreds of conversations" with federal officials since the February assessment and has made changes to the route and design to minimize the environmental impact.
"We have taken their comments into account," Ehrlich said. "It's safe to say we are confident this decision will be sustained."
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a long-time ICC backer who shared the stage with Ehrlich yesterday, praised the governor's decision, saying the road and other transportation projects, including a new purple line proposed for the Washington Metro, are key to reducing the gridlock that grips his county.
"We need to do everything to help solve the traffic congestion we are facing, but the ICC is the most important piece," Duncan said.
Ehrlich decided to include in his plan an interchange at Layhill Road and a connection to U.S. 1, an option opposed by some Prince George's County leaders because it could siphon jobs from Prince George's and into Montgomery County.
Problems may remain
The choice of a route did nothing to cool the invective exchanged by ICC backers and foes. Opponents of the road argue that it will, for all its cost, do little to reduce traffic on the Capital Beltway and won't fix many of the area's failing intersections, while taking away prime parkland and hurting the environment.
Jim Fary, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's Montgomery County unit, said the southern route would be a "disaster" from an environmental point of view but could give opponents a leg up in an expected court challenge.
"In a way, it's good for us because it's our best legal case," Fary said. "We know the battlefield. That's good for us and we like the battlefield."
Fary said any lawsuit would have to wait for an official decision on the route by federal highway administrators.
Supporters said yesterday that the road's opponents overlook the road's benefits in taking commuter traffic off neighborhood streets and improvements to the road's design and route to minimize the environmental impact. Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said the state will build longer bridges to give streams and wetlands a wider berth and will reverse damage done by earlier roads that were built with less environmentally friendly technology.
Flanagan said the northern alternative known as Corridor 2, which would have run through the Burtonsville area just south of the Rocky Gorge Reservoir, was rejected because it was incompatible with the state's Smart Growth policies.