The fast lane

July 13, 2005

IT'S TOO EARLY to redraw Maryland's highway map, but the proposed Intercounty Connector passed a major milestone Monday. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced that the 18-mile, $2.4 billion road will be built along the southern route, a corridor vigorously opposed by environmentalists. The decision was not particularly surprising given Mr. Ehrlich's penchant for road-building, but when a highway has been on the books for five decades - and is as expensive and controversial as this one - the fact that it might actually be built seems like a revelation.

There are still roadblocks. The proposal is almost certain to be taken to court by opponents. Federal regulators have expressed reservations about the potential harm to local flora and fauna. But ground could be broken for the project by next year, a development that seemed unimaginable just five years ago.

So what are taxpayers getting for $2.4 billion? Perhaps it's best to be reminded of what they aren't getting. The ICC will not solve Montgomery County's traffic congestion woes. As traffic studies make clear, the Capital Beltway isn't about to become unclogged, nor will Interstate 270 be emptied. The more compelling argument is how the ICC might spawn future development - perhaps 14,000 jobs, according to one University of Maryland study. Certainly, the ICC would better connect portions of Prince George's County, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the rest of Central Maryland with job-rich Montgomery County and the I-270 technology corridor.

That's a compelling argument, and the Ehrlich administration has helped its cause further with its plans to ameliorate some of the environmental harm caused by the road. But it's the huge cost of the ICC that remains daunting.

Even as the State Highway Administration prepares to spend $133 million per mile on a new road, the state is simultaneously reducing Maryland Transit Administration bus service in the Baltimore region, in part, to save a comparatively paltry $5 million a year. To put it bluntly, the Ehrlich administration has failed to meet Maryland's multibillion-dollar transit needs - from the popular but aging Metro system in the D.C. suburbs to Baltimore's multimodal mess. Starving transit to help feed highways is a poor tradeoff. The ICC's funding scheme is far from ideal - an unusual mix of tolls, tax dollars and record borrowing that can only add to the imbalance for many years to come.

Mr. Ehrlich has treated the ICC as the Great White Whale of transportation, the focus of his attention (after slot machines, we imagine). And while we agree that the ICC is a worthy investment in Maryland's economic future, so is an efficient and effective system of buses, subways, commuter trains and light rail lines. Public transit can relieve congestion - and improve quality of life - in ways that roads cannot. Before Maryland spends such a staggering amount of money to pave a new highway across Montgomery County, the administration ought to offer an equally ambitious strategy for addressing the growing needs of the neglected Metro and MTA systems.

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