ICC imperils green record

O'Malley's support for intercounty highway upsets environmentalists

May 06, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley fully funded open space programs, pushed for stricter emissions controls for cars, joined a regional initiative to cut down on greenhouse gases and backed new fees to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. But amid their jubilation, many Maryland environmentalists still find they have an 18.8-mile thorn in their sides: the Intercounty Connector.

The League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Naturalist Society, 1000 Friends of Maryland and other groups have called for O'Malley to rethink his support for the $2.4 billion toll road that would run through Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"We're trying to get a meeting," said Betsy Johnson, the political chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter. "We're not real happy with the response that we've gotten so far, but we keep hoping."

After O'Malley's speech in Washington last month on his efforts at data-driven government, a woman launched into a lengthy critique of the project, asking why the governor didn't cast as critical an eye on the road as he says he will on all other government operations.

"A lot of times when you come into government, there are certain things in motion," O'Malley replied. "We're going to do everything we can to mitigate any bad outcomes from this project."

It was former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who received mixed reviews from environmentalists, who finally got the long-awaited road off the shelf.

O'Malley, a Democrat, railed against Ehrlich's environmental record throughout last year's campaign, but he never wavered in his support for the ICC as a means to relieve traffic congestion, a key issue in vote-rich Montgomery County.

Much to the dismay of the environmentalists who backed him, he meant it.

The state has moved to intervene in support of the road in two lawsuits environmentalists filed against the federal government in hopes of stopping the ICC. Both suits are in preliminary stages. Last week, Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari was in New York briefing credit-rating agencies on the state's plan to sell $300 million in bonds this summer to finance early stages of the project.

Construction on the first segment, a 7-mile stretch running from Interstate 370 to Georgia Avenue, is due to begin in the fall. When completed, it will be a six-lane highway connecting I-370 near Rockville with the I-95/U.S. 1 corridor in Prince George's County. Officials say it will take thousands of cars off clogged local roads. It is scheduled to be completed in 2012.

The General Assembly approved a funding plan for the road in 2005. The project will be paid for through a combination of federal and state funds.

O'Malley administration officials said they will make the project as environmentally friendly as possible.

But as many environmentalists see it, the decision to move forward with the road is incongruous with the administration's commitment to fight climate change. Conservationists are worried not only about the effects of paving over undeveloped land and bridging streams but also the possibility that the road could encourage sprawl and increase carbon dioxide emissions from cars.

"Moving ahead with the ICC severely negates the benefits of some of the positive legislation recently passed, including the Clean Cars Act," Maryland League of Conservation Voters Director Cindy Schwartz wrote in the group's scorecard for the governor, which otherwise gave him high marks.

A report released in March by 1000 Friends of Maryland suggested that O'Malley should rethink his campaign promise to support the road because the state's troubled financial picture has become clearer since then and because the effects of a military base realignment on Maryland development patterns are only now becoming apparent.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, the group's executive director, said she believes the budget problems demand that the state consider whether the money it would invest in the ICC could better achieve the state's priorities in other ways. Just half the cost of a road connecting two counties could provide a drastic overhaul for the MARC system, providing better options for commuters from Perryville to Washington, she said.

"He's managing with BayStat and StateStat, and if you apply those to this road, it doesn't pass," Schmidt-Perkins said, referring to O'Malley's efforts to improve government efficiency and effectiveness. "They are very open about the fact that there isn't the money to do everything that needs to be done, but I have not yet seen them look at setting new priorities."

Planning for the ICC began in the 1950s, but the road languished for years amid disputes about its cost and environmental effects. Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening put the brakes on the project in the 1990s, but the political dynamics changed in 2002.

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