Near its western end in Montgomery County, parts of the long-awaited and long-reviled Intercounty Connector look as if they could open to traffic Wednesday.
The eastbound lanes are paved, striped and lined with guardrails. The landscaping is complete beneath sound barriers that already have vines creeping to the top. Electronic devices that will collect tolls hang from overhead gantries. The road surface is smooth enough that earlier this month, hundreds of runners took part in a charity race there.
On the westbound side of the highway, the ICC clearly has weeks of work to go before its first section can open. But a recent tour of the $2.5 billion construction project in suburban Washington showed visitors 51/2 miles of six-lane highway that are more than 90 percent complete and steady progress on the rest.
Debated for almost half a century and several times written off as dead, the ICC experienced a political resurrection after the 2002 election of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on a pledge to build the road between Interstate 95 and the Interstate 270 corridor.
Construction continued under Gov. Martin O'Malley, who defeated Ehrlich in 2006. Next week's election could determine which man gets to cut the ribbon on the first section, which, depending on the weather, will open later this year or early in 2011.
The largest section of the highway, about a dozen miles between Georgia Avenue and I-95, is scheduled to open late next year or early in 2012. Along that section, some stretches are paved and others bare dirt. But the sense of progress is tangible.
Plans for the ICC finally prevailed over years of environmental challenges thanks to an overhaul that incorporated hundreds of millions of dollars of environmental mitigation features that helped it win federal approval and withstand court battles.
Michael S. Baker, the project's environmental manager, said the contractors must abide by rigorous rules controlling the amount of soil that reaches the numerous streams crossed by the ICC. He said the contractors' performance on controlling runoff is measured and that there are financial incentives for running a clean project.
However, some ICC opponents have complained about pollution of nearby streams by dirt running off from the construction area.
Overseeing the construction for the State Highway Administration is Melinda Peters, a 37-year-old engineer who works out of the ICC project office in Beltsville — near the spot where crews are building massive bridges and ramps to connect the ICC with I-95.
Peters said the section that includes that interchange, the ICC's eventual gateway to Baltimore, is roughly 70 percent complete. A middle section, running between Georgia Avenue and U.S. 29, is roughly 60 percent of the way to the finish line, she said.
"It's going extremely well," she said. "We have excellent contractors working very hard to see we're meeting all our commitments."
Peters said there are no guarantees that the first section can open before Jan. 1. It all depends on the weather. If temperatures are above 50 and rising, she said, the contractors can put down the final surface. Below that, they must wait.
In many ways, weather has been the story of the ICC since ground was broken on the main roadway in early 2007.
Peters said 2009 was "a very rough year for us" — from a rainy spring to a December snowstorm. This year started out badly when February's twin snowstorms paralyzed construction, but since then 2010 has been much kinder than the previous year, she said.
The progress of construction was immediately apparent during the tour. Several bridges over local streams are all but complete — and the design is in some cases striking. Architects might find more to like about the road than environmentalists.
Baker pointed to the design of a bridge over a tributary of Mill Creek in the Derwood section of Montgomery County. The deck is supported by what is called a "bottomless arch," with a wide stretch of open ground on either side of the stream it crosses. Like many of the ICC's bridges, it is quite long — bridging the valley rather than just the stream. That, Baker explains, reduced the amount of fill needed to support the structure.
The design is also intended to allow the free passage of animals, Baker said. He said deer, for instance, would not use the underpass if it weren't large enough to let them see light on the other side. With reinforced fencing, and contours that channel animals into the underpasses, Baker said, the plan is to keep the ICC deer-free despite their thriving numbers in the vicinity.
Motorists driving along the ICC will miss many of the toll road's most visually appealing features, including the structure Baker calls "our signature bridge" over Rock Creek. The bridge, supported by four graceful arches, is designed to have no footprint in the flood plain itself — a feature that can be seen from the side of the highway but not from the road itself.
Baker said he hopes visitors will some day be able to view the bridge from a trail alongside the creek.
As the highway moves closer to completion, Marylanders can expect to see fewer references to the ICC and more mentions of Maryland Route 200 — the designation the toll road will bear on state maps.
Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for the project, said the state plans to "rebrand" the highway — a move that would phase out a name that has been associated with controversy for decades.
"A lot of people may still call it the ICC," Feldmann said.