- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2002

Political support for construction of the Intercounty Connector may have solidified, but that doesn't mean concrete trucks and construction crews will be blazing a trail across Montgomery County anytime soon: State officials say the highway, which still faces environmental and funding hurdles, is years maybe decades away from completion.
The ICC, the "outer beltway" that would join Interstate 270 in Montgomery County with Interstate 95 in Prince George's County, has been on the drawing boards for more than 30 years.
But the proposed roadway took a big step toward reality this week, when the new Montgomery County Council, made over into a pro-highway body after ICC opponents were defeated on Election Day, voted 6-3 to back an environmental-impact study for the proposed road.
The council now is marching in step with Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has promised to make it "priority one" for his administration when he takes the reins in January.
However, the project has to clear several obstacles that could delay the start of construction for a decade or more.
"In general, any highway project if things went smoothly would take at least 10 years to complete," said Valerie Edgar, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration. Because the ICC project had never moved smoothly, she said, it was hard to predict how long work would take on the proposed 16- to 18-mile-long stretch of highway. "This is a proposed long road, so it could take even longer," she said.
"Planning for the five-mile bypass in Salisbury started in the '80s and they are only now beginning construction," she said.
Miss Edgar said a typical project could be in the planning stages for two to four years, while design could take another two to six years. This would be followed by other necessary processes, like obtaining rights of way. The construction itself could add two to three more years.
No timeline has been set for the study. The last environmental-impact study was started in 1992 by the Maryland State Highway Administration but halted in 1998 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Opponents, meanwhile, say the proposed road is far from certain. "During this time all kinds of things could change politically and financially," said Laura Olsen, assistant director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a group that opposes the ICC.
She said the study could cost millions of dollars at a time when the state is facing a budget deficit. "This is a time you want to be fiscally responsible. I don't believe it makes sense to spend excess money when studies have already been done on the ICC."
When Mr. Glendening took office in 1994, he was a strong supporter of the ICC. However, four years later and during his re-election campaigning, Mr. Glendening did an about-face, siding with environmentalists who were concerned that the highway would destroy wetlands and increase urban sprawl.
Growing traffic congestion has increased the demand for the ICC in recent years. Studies show the length of the rush hour in the Washington area could increase from five hours to almost 14 hours per day by 2015.
In the November elections, the ICC became a major campaign issue with both gubernatorial candidates expressing support for the road. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan also campaigned ferociously for council candidates who supported the ICC. This week, three of the four newly elected council members voted to restart an environmental-impact study on the highway.
Robert Grow, director of transportation for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which supports the ICC, agrees that the highway project is still a long way off. "In the fastest scenario, it could take eight years. And that is if the study starts tomorrow," he said. But he predicted the need for the highway is so great that it will be built "no matter who is in office."
Economic-development advocates in suburban Washington and statewide have long supported the ICC, which has been part of the state's master transportation plan for 31 years.
The highway, linking Gaithersburg and Laurel, is expected to greatly shorten the drive from northern Montgomery County to the Baltimore area and Prince George's County.
In January, Mr. Ehrlich is expected to give a go-ahead to the environmental-impact study on the ICC, and is also expected to decide on asking for federal funding for the project.
While the federal government typically contributes 80 percent of the money and even more in certain cases, this is contingent on the approval of the project by several federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others. In the past, these agencies have failed to give top marks to the connector.
The Montgomery County Council is uncertain how long its own study will take or what it will cost. Two studies conducted in Maryland so far on the ICC have together cost $15 million.
"There is no fixed timeline," said Council President Michael Subin, at-large Democrat.
Mr. Subin was among six council members who voted for the study. The others were Steve Silverman, at-large Democrat; Howard Denis, Bethesda Democrat; Mike Knapp, Germantown Democrat; and George Leventhal and Nancy Floreen, both at-large Democrats.
Marilyn J. Praisner, Silver Spring Democrat; Philip Andrews, Rockville Democrat; and Tom Perez, Silver Spring Democrat, voted against the ICC.
"By the time it begins, this could easily be a $2 billion-plus highway. And close to 90 percent of intersections that would be congested without the ICC by that time would still be congested with it," said Greg Smith, who heads the Campaign to Stop the ICC.
Miss Edgar said she could not predict if the ICC would alleviate congestion, but added that traffic in the state was growing at a rate of 2 percent every year.

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