ICC allies: Take a bow, keep your word

November 26, 2007|By MICHAEL DRESSER

The toothpaste is out of the tube. The fat lady has not only sung; she's cooling down with a post-operatic beer. The Rubicon has been crossed - by a six-lane toll bridge.

Pick your cliche, but the War of the Intercounty Connector is over. The road builders won. The greens lost. When U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. issued his ruling Nov. 8 rejecting legal challenges to the federal approval of the long-fought-over toll road through the Washington suburbs, that was the ballgame. Anyone who believes the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals will come to the rescue probably still has a few old molars under the pillow in hopes of a shiny coin.

This is not an opinion on the merits of the coming ICC - the word "proposed" is no longer necessary - but the judgment of an observer who has been covering the issue since the Glendening administration. After nearly a decade of hearing the arguments and touring the ICC corridor with proponents and foes of the road, a dispassionate observer can only conclude that both sides made a strong case. But only one side could win.

For the environmentalists who fought the road for so long and so hard, it's going to be hard to accept that it's all over. But it's time for Maryland's greens to find other causes worthy of their passion.

The Sierra Club, the Audubon Naturalist Society, Environmental Defense and other groups deserve credit for forcing state and federal officials to redesign the road in a way that should mitigate the harm to the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The ICC will never be a plus for the environment, but it will be less of a calamity than the road proposed and rejected in the 1980s and 1990s.

Proponents of the road have every reason to cheer their heroes.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and former Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan supplied the political will and never wavered. Former Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan acted as Ehrlich's field general and navigated the intricacies of the financing (with some unsolicited "help" from his good friend, now-Comptroller Peter Franchot). And more than anyone else, State Highway Administrator Neil Pedersen made a painstaking case for the highway that could withstand the inevitable court scrutiny.

Congratulations also are in order for the ICC's legislative champions from Montgomery County: former Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, Sen. Jennie Forehand, former Del. Richard A. La Vay and House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve among others. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. both earned invitations to the ribbon-cutting.

But save some kudos for the defeated foes. Somebody's got to keep government honest when it proposes to cut through parkland and streams to make traffic move a little faster.

And there's still a role for the greens to play.

A lot of environmental promises were made on the way to winning federal approval of the ICC. Advocates need to stay on top of the project to see that those pledges are kept.

If the greens don't try to keep fighting lost battles, there is every reason to believe they can get a hearing from Gov. Martin O'Malley and Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari. Where Ehrlich and Flanagan seemed to view the ICC opponents as wackos, the current administration has every reason to view them as potential allies with whom they had one unfortunate disagreement. And if you can't work with Pedersen, you can't work with anybody.

In particular, environmental advocates need to make sure the state delivers on Flanagan's oft-repeated promise that the ICC will become a significant mass-transit asset. It was one of his better arguments for the ICC, but it collapses if public buses and their riders don't get the pampered treatment they deserve. That means ensuring adequate parking and convenient schedules to entice commuters away from paying ICC tolls.

And under the state's congestion pricing plan, those tolls could become hefty at peak hours. The lane capacity is essentially fixed on Day One, and demand has nowhere to go but up. Look 20 years ahead, and the battle might be whether to widen the ICC or build mass transit to relieve road congestion. Forward-looking environmentalists might want to stake a claim to the rejected northern ICC route for commuter rail before the highway advocates can pave it. A BCR Line - for Baltimore, Columbia and Rockville -might be needed 30 years from now.

Finally, I would commend to both sides of the ICC debate a challenge that dovetails with both the goals of less congestion and a cleaner environment: Make the ICC the safest road on the planet.

Bad driving causes crashes. Crashes mean backups. Backups yield pollution.

So both the business advocates and the greens should be able to agree on a program of super-strict enforcement of traffic laws on the new highway. Every modern technology - especially computerized video cameras - should be put to use to detect speeders, tailgaters, aggressive lane changers and people who should be pulled over for a field sobriety test. Electronic speed signs should adjust for weather conditions, and the use of polluting salt to keep traffic going 65 mph in icy weather should be curtailed.

Traffic safety was one of the more powerful arguments advanced by ICC backers. Now it's time for them to deliver.

gettingthere@baltsun.com

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