Wildlife not forgotten with new road, but challenge remains


April 12, 2009|By CANDUS THOMSON

Stand anywhere along Maryland's version of the big dig and there can be no doubt the Intercounty Connector is finally a reality after more than a half-century of angst.

Huge earth-moving machines gouge red clay from what was once rolling hills and woods. Trucks pour rivers of concrete that will be bridges carrying thousands of vehicles between Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

These are the obvious things that announce the coming of the 18.8-mile, $2.5 billion toll road with the official state designation of Route 200, better known as the ICC.

However, it's the little stuff that has me walking and riding the route with Mike Baker, the project's environmental engineer. I'm out here as a skeptic, a Montgomery County resident who never saw the need for the ICC, at the suggestion of another doubter, Charlie Gougeon, whose job as a state fisheries biologist makes him a guardian of some of the wildlife being disturbed by the construction.

Gougeon is a member of a group that is keeping an eye on the status of brown trout that inhabit some of the streams in the path of the ICC. So far, he says he's impressed with the steps being taken to contain damaging soil and water runoff and to hold contractors accountable.

Baker smiles when I tell him who sent me.

"That's what we want to hear," says Baker, who in a similar job with the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement project helped coordinate construction of five artificial reefs in the Chesapeake Bay using pieces of the old bridge.

Environmental concerns derailed construction of the road twice, first envisioned during the Eisenhower administration. So when work finally started a year ago, it did so with a mandate that makes environmental safeguards second only to safety concerns, Baker says.

That means building a 17-foot-wide "bottomless" culvert under a section of the roadway to create a dirt path for deer and a bubbling gravel stream bed for fish. It means putting up miles of orange mesh fencing to keep box turtles outside active construction areas and hand-carrying wayward critters to backyards. (By one informal count, 300 turtles have been plucked from danger.) And it means restoring streams and building new wetlands.

Perhaps the biggest concern expressed by anglers is that runoff from the site will destroy what's left of the trout in places such as Northwest Branch and Paint Branch.

Baker and I walk stream crossings as he points out features, some required by law and contract and others "on the fly" collaborations by designers and environmentalists, to protect habitats.

The ICC project employs teams of "stormbusters" to put down straw and grass seed and erect plastic silt fences in construction areas before it rains to prevent erosion. Solar-powered stream monitors give Baker and enforcement personnel a real-time reading of water conditions. Paved storm-water ditches in older neighborhoods abutting the highway will be replaced by grass-lined swales that will filter and cool the water before it enters tributaries.

At an unnamed tributary of Mill Creek east of Rockville, Baker pauses to show me one of the informal collaborations: landscaping that collects seepage from a series of small underground springs to create a vernal pool and wetlands.

"It's a little oasis," Baker says, grinning. "Little things make a difference. This didn't cost anything."

That's not to say the ICC is a hearts-and-flowers operation.

"How do you protect Paint Branch and Rock Creek? You make sure no dirt gets into the water. And how do you do that?" Baker asks and then answers his own question. "Money talks."

So an inspector monitors the job daily and awards environmental points for coloring inside the regulatory and contractual lines. A score of 85 out of 100 earns the contractor a $250,000 bonus at the end of the quarter. Meeting all obligations over the three-year contract means a payment of $1 million.

The environmental aspect of the project is driving the project," Baker says. "It drives where they're working and what happens when."

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