ICC foes criticize impact report

Possible effects on area understated, opponents say

General Assembly

April 11, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

Rockville -- Opponents of a proposed east-west highway through the Washington suburbs accused state and federal highway officials yesterday of preparing an "incomplete, inadequate and biased" study that understates the environmental harm that would result from construction of the $2.4 billion toll road.

A coalition of environmental groups called on federal officials to send the State Highway Administration back to the drawing board to reconsider the impact of the Intercounty Connector and alternatives for relieving congestion in the traffic-choked area.

With the comment period for the final environmental impact study ending today, the groups released their detailed rebuttal to the massive document.

"The Maryland State Highway Administration prejudged the outcome of this study," said Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society.

Those charges were disputed by state highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen, who stood by the integrity of the impact statement.

"The governor made it very clear to the State Highway Administration that we were to conduct thorough and objective studies consistent with all legal requirements," he said.

The Audubon group was joined by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Sierra Club and other organizations in opposing the ICC - the top transportation priority of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

A final decision on the ICC, which would connect Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, is in the hands of the U.S. government after an expedited environmental review process that involved state and federal agencies.

Because President Bush put the ICC on the fast track at Ehrlich's behest, final approval has been widely considered a foregone conclusion.

Pedersen said his agency worked closely with federal officials through the study process and said he is confident the methodology was acceptable. He said he expects a decision within the "next several weeks."

Opponents insisted yesterday that federal law requires officials to reject the environmental statement because it understates the effects of the road on the environment and public health. "This road is not a done deal," said Michael Replogle, transportation director of Environmental Action.

While the activists did not explicitly threaten to sue if federal officials approve the ICC, they left little doubt of their willingness to do so. Replogle cited a series of cases around the country in which judges had intervened to block road projects because of inadequacies in the review process.

"Hopefully, the federal agencies will pay attention to these precedents and not make this an issue for the courts," he said.

The groups' critique - a highly technical document of more than 120 pages - attempts to dissect virtually every aspect of the ICC study from the original decision to focus on a highway solution to the measures it uses to assess its impact on air and water pollution.

In particular, the environmentalists charged that the study fails to take into account the added water and air pollution that would result from increased development caused by construction of the ICC.

Replogle pointed to one example where University of Maryland researcher Stephen Prince, in response to a prediction in the draft environmental statement of an 8 percent increase in development, found that the extra growth would come to about 33 percent.

In the final study, Replogle said, highway officials ignored Prince's findings and lowered their estimate to 3.6 percent. Prince said those estimates "cannot be taken seriously."

Replogle also said highway officials understated the level of fine particulate air pollution in the ICC corridor by "cherry-picking" the results from a monitor far from a major highway in Laurel.

Pedersen said he is comfortable that the appropriate monitoring locations were selected and that any revisions to growth estimates were based on comments the agencies received.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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