Getting There: As ICC opens, one juror is withholding judgment

Boon or a bane? After a decade of coverage, it's hard to tell

February 13, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Reporters are by no means immune to forming opinions about issues they cover. We can't help it. But usually, unless we also write columns, we keep those opinions out of the public eye.

On one issue I've covered for more than a decade now, it's been impossible to form a firm opinion. Had I been seated on the jury deciding whether the Intercounty Connector should have been built, I'd be the guy on the lonely end of an 11-1 vote on either verdict.

Either way, it will be a personal milestone as well as one for all of Maryland next week when the state opens the first 5.5-mile leg of the long-desired, long-reviled, long-disputed toll road that will eventually link the technology-rich Interstate 270 corridor with Interstate 95.

Weather permitting, the first traffic will be allowed on the stretch of road between Interstate 370 (a spur off I-270) and Georgia Road at 6 a.m. Feb. 22. For 13 days, through March 6, motorists can sample the new mobility the road will bring for free. After that, they'll have to pay tolls — which will vary by time of day to reflect demand. Nary a tollbooth will be in sight because all collections will be made electronically.

It will be interesting to see the highway come alive — having been there when it died.

That was my byline atop the front page story in The Baltimore Sun on Sept. 23, 1999, reporting that Gov. Parris N. Glendening, to the delight of environmentalists, had pulled the plug on the ICC after 50 years of planning.

"I will not build the Intercounty Connector. As far as I'm concerned, there is no Intercounty Connector," Glendening told a State House news conference.

Since then, many ICC articles have followed.

There was my account of the bus tour with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — exactly six years ago — where he touted the virtues of the "green" construction techniques the state would use to persuade the federal government to allow a Lazarus-like resurrection. There was the one a month later about a counter-tour of the ICC's route led by environmental activists who pointed out the damage the road would wreak.

Six months later, I reported from a neighborhood called Cashell Estates about the plight of homeowners who were facing displacement to make way for six lanes of traffic.

In May 2006 there came an ICC story I won't soon forget. It came when Ehrlich announced final federal approval at a sweltering outdoors news conference in Montgomery County. It was the closest I've come to passing out from heat stroke.

There have been many, many more. But it's still not clear to me whether this project will turn out to be a boon or a bust.

As someone who believes it's important to protect the Chesapeake Bay, I find it hard to see the ICC as anything but a blow. The State Highway Administration has done an admirable job trying to mitigate its ill effects, but you can't cut a scar through some of the state's most sensitive stream valleys without causing damage.

In transportation terms, the ICC could meet a real need for improved mobility. Anyone who lives in Baltimore and does business in the Rockville-Gaithersburg area, or vice versa, knows the meaning of the old expression "you can't get there from here." The ICC will likely bring some relief, but it's unlikely the ICC will turn the Capital Beltway into a free-flowing autobahn.

We can at least hope that the latest in engineering will make the ICC one of the safest roads in the nation. One of the most compelling arguments proponents had was that the road would be safer than the overcrowded local roads that were carrying far too much cross-county traffic.

It will be interesting to see whether the $2.6 billion we're spending on the ICC actually helps bring the state together in a way that benefits the Baltimore residents who have helped finance its construction through tolls. It's hard to believe it won't help Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport compete with Dulles International. But what will it do for Dundalk?

It's safe to predict the ICC will be wildly popular for its first six weeks or so — before the state starts imposing a $3-a-pop surcharge on vehicles that use the highway without having an E-ZPass. The charge will help recover the costs of photographing their license plates and sending them a bill. But it will also be a not-so-subtle signal to those who have yet to move into the 21st century that the cash tollbooth is on the endangered species list. Many will not take the hint gracefully.

The big question is what happens once the whole section between I-95 and I-370 opens about a year from now and cars start competing for the ICC's limited capacity? At some point, if plans don't change, a congestion-pricing scheme will kick into place to keep traffic moving smoothly.

That means some folks will have to be priced off the ICC and onto the old local roads. And while demand can be expected to grow over the years, capacity will remain frozen for decades. It's a recipe for ever-escalating tolls.

What will folks who use the ICC in 2040 think of the decisions Maryland leaders made back in the 2000s? I don't expect to be writing that story.

But unlike some folks whose misgivings I share, I won't boycott the ICC. After all the grief it's given us, we should get all the use out of it we can.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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