Report warns against the ICC

Building D.C.-area road could hurt Md. effort to fight congestion elsewhere, group says

March 21, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,sun reporter

A new report by an anti-sprawl group warns that building the Intercounty Connector highway in the Washington suburbs could prevent Maryland from tackling traffic congestion elsewhere, while diverting growth from Baltimore and the District of Columbia to the suburbs along the road.

The report, commissioned by 1000 Friends of Maryland, cautions that the ICC's $2.4 billion price tag could jeopardize the state's ability to pay for other highway and transit projects, especially those planned to handle thousands of new jobs and households coming to the Baltimore area in the next several years with military base realignment.

The 18-mile toll highway also could attract more development along its path than originally predicted, the report says, while siphoning businesses and residents from cities and inner suburbs.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the managed-growth advocacy group, said she hopes the report, paid for by the Abell Foundation, will prompt Gov. Martin O'Malley to rethink his support for the east-west highway linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"The information brought to light in this report makes it imperative that the administration stop moving forward on the funding of this project until the different parts of this funding package can really be discussed," she said, along with the project's impact on the state's ability to pay for base realignment, transit and other transportation projects.

Legislators opposed to the ICC seized on the report to urge O'Malley to rethink his commitment for the long-debated highway project, which was revived and pushed through by the Ehrlich administration.

"If we lock ourselves into a decision right now on our transportation future, I believe we are committing transportation suicide," said Del. Barbara Frush, a Democrat representing parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. Her district includes Fort Meade, which is to receive 5,600 defense and contractor jobs in base realignment.

State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said last night that he would read the report carefully, but he remained convinced of the ICC's merits. "It is a project that is needed," he said, "and having reviewed the financing of it, it makes sense to go ahead."

The report comes as legislative leaders and the O'Malley administration consider how to pay for a growing backlog of transportation projects. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has proposed a 12-cent increase in the gas tax, now 23.5 cents a gallon. Business leaders favor a gas tax increase, though not necessarily one that large, and O'Malley has signaled that he is not ready to push for one.

The state has spent $170 million on the ICC since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. restarted the project in 2003, said state transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan. O'Malley supported the project when he was Baltimore's mayor and has reiterated that commitment since becoming governor.

The ICC is heavily financed through borrowing, much of it to be repaid with tolls collected on Maryland's bridges, tunnels and highways. But the report notes that the ICC also is slated to get $265 million in general-fund revenue over the next few years, a time when the state faces a looming long-term fiscal crisis.

Schmidt-Perkins said that toll revenues also ought to be spent on maintaining toll facilities or redirected to pay for transit projects. But Porcari said toll revenue cannot be readily switched to other transportation projects.

The report predicts that growth along the ICC could exceed projections. Neil J. Pedersen, state highway administrator, said engineers had worked to ensure that the ICC complemented plans for growth at either end of the highway.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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