On Google, the ICC is way to go

Mapping service directs drivers to yet-unopened toll road

March 25, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

In Google's world, the 41.9-mile trip from Baltimore to Gaithersburg takes all of 48 minutes along the brand-new Intercounty Connector. Just take Interstate 95 south, hop on the ICC and you're virtually there.

But on planet Earth, most of the ICC hasn't opened yet. The 10 miles between I-95 and the Montgomery County high-tech hotbed is largely a muddy track where bulldozers are still doing what bulldozers do.

Oops.

In a textbook illustration of the computer adage "garbage in, garbage out," Google and another popular Web-based mapping service jumped the gun on the opening of the longest segment of Maryland's new $2.6 billion toll road by about a year.

"Beware: Everything you read on the Internet may not be true," Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA-Mid-Atlantic, chortled when told about the error.

A 6-mile stretch of the ICC, between Georgia Avenue and Interstate 370, opened late last month. But the segment between Georgia Avenue and I-95 is under construction and expected to open late this year or early in 2012.

"Clearly, Google understands that many of our people who drive our roads also have all-terrain vehicles," Anderson joked. "Google's just a little ahead of all of us."

As funny as the mistake might seem to a detached observer, it could be less than amusing to a motorist unfamiliar with the region and depending on the directions. A traveler from Baltimore to Montgomery County, for instance, could drive down I-95 expecting to get off on the ICC, only to get lost upon finding no exit.

"If you took a ride down there today, you'd see a very active construction zone," said Cheryl Sparks, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the toll road.

Doug Beizer, a communications manager for an engineering society, stumbled across the misleading directions Thursday when he was plotting a route between his office in Landover and Montgomery General Hospital in Olney.

Google Maps assured him that Route 200, as the ICC is also known, was the way to go. Beizer, who is married to a Baltimore Sun reporter, knew that wasn't so.

"I saw this map and it drew this line west on a road that doesn't exist yet," said Beizer, whose work travels have made him familiar with the I-95 corridor. "I knew it was one of those glitches."

The error was still showing up on the website Friday morning. Google — as well as Yahoo for a part of the day — was also directing motorists onto the ICC for a trip from Baltimore to Gaithersburg and other theoretical journeys across the state.

The same error showed up on the wireless Web-based service provided by Google through a handheld Apple iPhone.

Mapquest, a rival, provided directions more applicable to reality. It guided drivers to the tedious but existent 58-minute slog along the Capital Beltway and up Interstate 270 that the ICC is intended to render obsolete. By Friday afternoon Yahoo had apparently corrected the information, but as of Friday night Google was still directing drivers to the unfinished highway.

Sparks said the transportation authority was aware of the problem before a reporter inquired about it Friday.

"We had already reached out to Google," she said.

Anne Espiritu, a Google spokeswoman, said Friday night that the company had a team hard at work on the problem and hoped to have it resolved by early next week.

"We're aware that a section of Maryland Route 200, which is under construction, is appearing as an available driving route, and [we] are working to correct that issue as soon as possible," Google said in an earlier statement, adding that the Mountain View, Calif.-based company's customers can customize their route by clicking on a blue route line and dragging it to one's preferred road.

"And as always, we encourage users to let us know when something is incorrect by using the 'Report a Problem' tool, found at the bottom right corner of the map," the statement said.

The MTA's Sparks noted that the authority's board had been talking just the previous day about how to make sure the major computer mapping and global-positioning services know the first section of the ICC is open. A satellite view from Google Earth shows the project as it looked last year before that segment opened.

Libra White, a Yahoo spokeswoman, said Friday night that she had no immediate explanation but would look into the problem.

Jim Bak, a spokesman for the geographic data provider Inrix, said road openings and closings present a challenge for his industry.

"It's probably a communication-of-information glitch, and therefore there's a coding glitch," said Bak, whose company provides geographic information to Mapquest but not to Yahoo or Google. "Somebody's got to be paying close attention to the [state Department of Transportation] to see when the road is going to be open or not."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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