ICC approved by U.S.

Decision helps clear way for highway through D.C. suburbs

May 31, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

SHADY GROVE -- More than 50 years after the road was first proposed, the federal government has signed off on construction of the 18-mile Intercounty Connector through the Washington suburbs, a jubilant Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday.

Waving off the catcalls of protesters - some of whom stand to lose their homes to build the highway - Ehrlich said the $2.4 billion ICC will bring thousands of new jobs in addition to relieving traffic congestion in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Opponents say they will study the Federal Highway Administration's decision, which was issued Monday night, and might challenge the approval in court.

Barring such a challenge, the decision is essentially the final word on the project.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said parts of the toll road between Interstate 270 and U.S. 1 could open as early as 2010. He said the ICC would give the Baltimore region an improved connection with Montgomery - the state's wealthiest and most job-rich county.

"This is going to knit our state together in a way that has never been achieved before," he said.

The Bush administration's approval reverses decisions made under two previous presidents that the east-west highway - first proposed in the 1950s as part of a since-abandoned Washington Outer Beltway - could not be built because of the severe environmental impact.

The environmental objections prompted former Gov. Parris N. Glendening to withdraw his support and cancel the project in 1999. But his attempt to permanently scuttle the highway by selling off state-owned parts of the right-of-way was thwarted by fellow members of the state Board of Public Works. Ehrlich resurrected the project after the 2002 election.

Yesterday, under a blazing sun outside the Shady Grove Metro station, Ehrlich celebrated the federal approval of his No. 1 transportation priority with what is likely to be the first of several ceremonial ground-breakings for the project.

"It's a very historic day in Maryland - 50 years is a long time to wait," he told a crowd that included transportation officials, state legislators and local officeholders.

The group did not include Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat who is an enthusiastic ICC backer and a potential challenger to Ehrlich in the November election.

Duncan campaign spokeswoman Jody Couser said Duncan had been invited to the news conference at 9 a.m. yesterday but had an event on his schedule he could not cancel.

The county executive released a statement in which he echoed Ehrlich's ICC enthusiasm while criticizing the governor's transportation policy.

"In pursuing the ICC, the Ehrlich administration has essentially robbed Peter to pay Paul. They have gutted the state dedicated transportation fund, cut transit and left future generations of Maryland to deal with the consequences," Duncan said.

Federal approval of the ICC is a significant step toward fulfilling one of Ehrlich's key 2002 campaign promises and a potential advantage as he seeks re-election. But with Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley both on the record as ICC supporters, the election is unlikely to have much impact on the basic decision to build the road.

As approved, the ICC is to be a six-lane highway with tolls collected solely by electronic means such as E-ZPass. Tolls are to vary based on the level of congestion in an effort to reduce demand at peak travel times.

Flanagan said toll levels would not be set for about two years. But opponents have projected a $3.50 toll end to end each way - or $7 a day for a two-way commute - an amount they have said would price it out of the reach of many motorists.

Federal officials based their decision to approve the ICC this time - after rejecting it during the 1980s and 1990s - largely on the basis of a $370 million "environmental stewardship" package developed by federal, state and local agencies over the past three years. The Federal Highway Administration statement also pointed to improved construction techniques designed to lessen the highway's impact on streams, wetlands and parks.

Flanagan acknowledged that one of the modifications that helped win a federal blessing was the decision to spare an environmentally sensitive portion of Rock Creek Park by routing the ICC through the Cashell Estates neighborhood - forcing the removal of more than a dozen residences.

That decision contributed to the emotional nature of the confrontation between Ehrlich and some of the protesters who booed and jeered as he unveiled a sign saying "ICC Starts Here" near the intersections of I-270 and Interstate 370.

When Ehrlich said he looked forward to attending the ribbon-cutting for the highway, Eve Burton of Cashell Estates yelled: "Why should I look forward to having my home bulldozed?"

At several points, Ehrlich admonished hecklers, calling for "mutual respect, please."

"This is the majority's time to talk," he said.

Carol Arscott, an assistant secretary of transportation who attended the event, expressed bitterness at Burton's loud criticisms of Ehrlich and the ICC. "At the end of the day, she'll be alive and have a new house, but my husband's dead," Arscott said.

Frederick W. Arscott, 47, died in 2002 in a truck-car accident on Route 108 while commuting from Howard County to Rockville - a frequently congested two-lane road that ICC proponents contend has long been in need of relief. ICC backers contend the highway would improve traffic safety by, among other things, diverting truck traffic off local roads.

Opponents of the ICC contend the highway's potential benefits have been exaggerated while its environmental impact has been understated. Laura Olsen, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said opponents would study the federal decision and consider whether to file a lawsuit seeking to block construction.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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