- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 4, 2002

The Montgomery County Council yesterday gave a green light to the building of the Intercounty Connector, an east-west highway that was a critical issue in this year's gubernatorial and council campaigns.
The council, meeting for the first time with four new members since the Nov. 5 election, voted 6-3 in favor of restarting an environmental-impact study halted by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1998. The study must be completed before any work can begin on the highway that would link Interstate 270 in Montgomery County with Interstate 95 in Prince George's County.
Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. supports the Intercounty Connector. He has pledged to reopen the study and said he will decide about asking the federal government to fund it when he takes office in January. The council vote yesterday was symbolic but significant because in the past the council has staunchly opposed the study, voting against it as recently as July. But as congestion in the area has mounted, so has backing for the highway. Recent studies say the length of rush hour in the Washington area could increase from five hours to almost 14 hours per day by 2015.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who was elected to a third term last month and has been at odds with the council on the ICC, campaigned for candidates who supported the highway. Three of the four new members voted for the study yesterday.
"We really have no cross-county, limited-access roadways north of the Beltway. Rockville and Gaithersburg need better access," said council President Michael Subin, who has backed the building of the highway since the 1980s.
He said the study would address all issues raised by environmentalists, including the effect on urban sprawl and wetlands.
The ICC has been under consideration in Maryland for four decades and is estimated to cost $1.5 billion. Supporters say the road will greatly reduce traffic congestion on I-270, I-95 and the Capital Beltway.
However, detractors say the congestion eased by the highway will be minimal and what the county really needs is a network of smaller roads.
When Mr. Ehrlich takes office, it will be the first time that the council, county executive and governor each a key player in the decision are in agreement on the ICC.
"We've been debating this road for over 40 years, and now we are going to move forward with one voice," Mr. Duncan said after yesterday's council vote.
The county already owns much of the right of way needed for the road lanes of open space marked by fading blue-and-white signs from Gaithersburg to Laurel.
Mr. Ehrlich's spokeswoman yesterday called the vote a "step in the right direction."
"It is good to see everyone is along for the ride. This will be a top priority, and it is only though a collaborative effort that the ICC will be built," spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said.
Mr. Glendening, who supported the ICC when he was first elected governor in 1994, abandoned the study after environmentalists complained of the effect it could have. He instead propagated his Smart Growth initiative with a focus on improving mass transit.
Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the governor said he continues to oppose the ICC.
"The governor's position on this has always been the same. This is something that has been studied and studied, and he believes that it would not solve the problems like traffic congestion. He will maintain that position while in office," spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said.
The council vote on the ICC was its first action after taking office yesterday. It also voted in favor of an inner Metrorail Purple Line, running through densely populated areas of Prince George's and Montgomery counties. The Prince George's County Council also voted yesterday in favor of the inner line.
The above-ground light rail from New Carrollton to Bethesda would serve many lower-income communities, but also would run along a bicycle path and through a Chevy Chase country club. It could be built for an estimated $1.4 billion.
Mr. Duncan and Mr. Ehrlich favor an outer line, a more expensive underground rail with stops in developing areas outside the Beltway, that would cost up to $5.6 billion.
Mr. Subin said the difference on the Purple Line's route won't spawn the land-use debates that raged around the ICC because the council and county executive agree that the rail should be built.
The specific alignments can be fashioned later, he said.
Marilyn J. Praisner, Silver Spring Democrat, said she voted against the ICC study because it was a pointless exercise.
"I don't think the connector can be built, because of federal regulations. It will take several years of study and could wind up in litigation," said Mrs. Praisner, who has consistently opposed the ICC because of its adverse effect on the environment.
She added that the congestion relief would be "very limited," and said the council needs to look at a variety of other issues, including land-use management and working with neighboring jurisdictions to alleviate congestion.
Philip Andrews, Rockville Democrat, said the ICC would create greater problems for Maryland in the long run.
"I fear it could become Montgomery County's version of the Mixing Bowl project in Northern Virginia that provides minimum relief and maximum cost," he said, adding that it could be more than a decade before the ICC is built.
A recent audit of the Mixing Bowl, where I-95 joins the Beltway in Springfield, estimates costs to be three to four times original figures.
"[The ICC] is going to suck money away from projects that will make a difference," Mr. Andrews said.
Robert Grow, director of transportation for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which has backed the ICC, said that while the highway was not going to rid the area of all the congestion, it would make a big difference.
"No one project will solve the traffic problem. The ICC has been shown, with other options, as being the singular most effective means of providing traffic relief in Montgomery County," he said.

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