How Green Is My Icc? Let Me Count The Ways

GETTING THERE

August 03, 2009|By MICHAEL DRESSER

For many decades, the Maryland environmental movement has hated the Inter-county Connector with a blinding passion. It was environmentalists' worst nightmare, and the symbol of all that was short-sighted, backward and crassly commercial. They fought the highway proposal in the county councils, at the polls and in the General Assembly and the courts. They almost had it killed in the 1990s, but like a movie zombie it wouldn't stay dead. The opponents finally lost on all counts, and the 18-mile toll road in suburban Washington is now well on its way to completion.

Now it's time for the greens to fall in love with what they once hated.

That's because the ICC is now, for all intents and purposes, existing infrastructure. And one of the central tenets of smart growth is that existing infrastructure is to be cherished. It should be put to maximum possible use so you don't have to build even more infrastructure. That means canny environmentalists need to stop moping about The Lost Cause and fight to get the best use out of the ICC that they can.

But there's more. The ICC is a potential ally in the next big environment-vs.-roads fight in Maryland - the one over a $4.6 billion plan to add two new lanes in each direction to Interstate 270 between Shady Grove and Frederick.

That plan is being pushed by Montgomery County business and political interests as a way of continuing to concentrate high-tech growth in the I-270 corridor. That made a certain sense when the corridor was arguably isolated from the I-95 corridor by congestion and stop-and-go traffic.

But once the ICC opens in 2010-2012 - next week in transportation project terms - the I-270 corridor will be just a hop, skip and a jump from Interstate 95 and U.S. 1. How do we know? That's what the ICC's proponents assured us.

If they choose to make it, the greens would have a strong argument that the ICC provides an opportunity to spread the growth around - especially to the I-95/U.S. 1 corridor. After all, the I-270 corridor is saturated with traffic. Why not ease it by diverting some of that growth to Beltsville, Laurel, Columbia and BWI Marshall Airport?

It's an argument that would fall on receptive ears in most parts of the state. Environmental issues aside, a wider I-270 would serve only the interest of Montgomery and, possibly, vote-poor Western Maryland. (Though those counties are hardly going to be unanimous in support.)

But added high-tech jobs in the I-95 corridor would be much more accessible to people who live in the Baltimore region, Prince George's County, the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland. Even much of eastern Montgomery County would find it easier to get to Laurel than Gaithersburg.

Politically, it makes perfect sense to steer growth to the center of the state rather than to continue concentrating it in an isolated corner that's more easily reached from Northern Virginia than from Baltimore. The obvious counter-proposal to the sprawl-inducing $4.6 billion I-270 boondoggle is intensive investment in transit improvements along I-95. There would still be plenty of jobs for folks in Rockville, Gaithersburg and Germantown. All they'd have to do is jump on the ICC. And if the environmentalists come out of their funk and advocate for transit on the toll road, many of those folks may commute by bus.

Great little road.

Montgomery Guy responds

Last week, my cranky alter ego Baltimore Guy hijacked this column and went off on a rant about that I-270 project. Adam Pagnucco, of the excellent but Montgomery-centric blog Maryland Politics Watch, replied with a detailed accounting of how much aid is sent to Baltimore with the help of Montgomery tax dollars.

His conclusion:

"Every job created in MoCo because of the I-270 project means more state aid for the City of Baltimore. And Baltimore can roll up that cash without having to deal with all the extra traffic that will impact us if the project is built. ...

"So do you really want to help us, Baltimore? Forget about I-270. Just loosen your development regulations, build a giant superhighway and double your population and employment. Then send a big chunk of those extra tax revenues to the state so they can pay for the majority of our school budget and take over funding responsibility for huge swaths of our local government. What did you say? You don't like the sound of that?"

My suspicion is that most Baltimoreans would love the sound of that. Given the choice of crumbs from Montgomery's table or more jobs in or near Baltimore, we'll take the growth any day of the week. We'd love to be prosperous enough to be donors. Then we could lecture other jurisdictions on how grateful they should be.

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