Don't squander billions on the ICC

July 13, 2006|By STEWART SCHWARTZ

Neither Maryland nor the federal government can afford to throw away $3 billion or more on an ineffective public works project. But that's exactly what Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and other politicians from both parties will do if they proceed with the Intercounty Connector.

The ICC would drain funding from many sources. Governor Ehrlich proposes to issue nearly $2 billion in public debt, a figure that would increase with rising construction costs. To repay this debt, the state proposes very high tolls, about $7 for round-trip, end-to-end travel between Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 - up to $1,800 per year. Drivers in the Baltimore region and to the Eastern Shore would also face possible toll increases and the planned diversion of their toll dollars to the ICC. Both areas would have fewer funds available to meet their own needs.

Mr. Ehrlich also plans to raid Maryland's general fund for $265 million over the next five years to help pay for the ICC. That's more than $1 million per week from the state's schools, police, fire and rescue services, health care, libraries and other programs, all of which are stretched thin.

There's more. The governor is pledging a huge share of scarce federal transportation dollars in the coming years to the ICC, at the expense of other projects that could be built in Maryland's urban, suburban and rural communities. Although 60 percent of voters polled by Mason-Dixon prefer to invest public resources in transit and in other road projects, such as fixing intersection bottlenecks, many projects are on hold to fund the ICC. To pay for other projects, ICC supporters want you to agree to higher taxes.

For all of this money, the ICC would fail to relieve congestion, despite the claims of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. There would be no relief of traffic on I-95, I-270 and the Washington Beltway, according to the state's two environmental impact studies and Montgomery County's Transportation Policy Report. More than half the local roads studied would end up more congested or would see no relief with the ICC. The ICC would add traffic to heavily congested north-south commuter routes, upon which the vast majority of commuters depend. Though a few people would save time on a full-length east-west trip, tens of thousands more would get no relief or would have their commutes worsened by the ICC.

Massive campaign contributions from powerful business and development interests are trumping good public policy. Many developers - excepting those committed to the more sustainable course of developing near transit - knew exactly what they were doing in pushing the ICC. Roads like the ICC simply shift development from other locations. With the ICC, more development would be shifted near and north of the ICC, overcrowding inadequate local roads.

The shift in development means less investment where it is needed: inside the Washington Beltway at Prince George's County's 15 Metro stations or in Baltimore and its inner suburbs. The ICC means wasting the opportunities offered by places such as New Carrollton in Prince George's, which has hundreds of available acres and direct road, bus and rail access to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, and doesn't require $3 billion in infrastructure.

The ICC also comes with a steep environmental cost. No amount of mitigation - including a few trees planted by the governor at the "groundbreaking" - can replace the many hundreds of acres of healthy forests, streams, parkland and neighborhoods that the ICC would shred.

When registered Democratic voters in Montgomery County were asked to weigh these facts about the ICC - to consider the abject lack of traffic relief, the massive cost, other needed transportation investments, the tolls and the environmental destruction - the majority told Mason-Dixon polling that they did not support the highway.

The ICC isn't worth the price to Marylanders, who should tell the political candidates "no thanks" before it's too late.

Stewart Schwartz is the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. His e-mail is stewart@smartergrowth.net.

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