- The Washington Times - Monday, July 1, 2002

This past legislative session, the Maryland House of Delegates passed a resolution, urging that the next governor complete an environmental impact study (EIS) for the Inter-County Connector (ICC). There has been confusion as to what this means for the region. Generally, before any construction project can be approved, there must first be an EIS. This has never actually been done for the current plans for the ICC. The people opposed to an ICC, who are primarily out of Montgomery County, know this.
It is similar to what has happened in Congress these past few years, whereby judges under consideration for confirmation to a federal judgeship are not given a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. By not getting a hearing, the judge cannot be confirmed by the Judiciary Committee, and thereby the whole Senate.
The need for an environmental impact study is a procedural step, without which the ICC can never be built. But it is unfair to the highly trained professionals who are in charge of what is still a lengthy process to conduct an EIS, not to conduct the EIS, and thereby short-circuit consideration of an ICC. This is particularly true when the entire region has undergone a significant increase in traffic on the inner Beltway, while environmental engineering skills and techniques have gained increased sophistication to minimize environmental impact. The unfairness of not having an EIS on the ICC has led to all the major gubernatorial candidates announcing their support for this study and the Maryland General Assembly overwhelmingly supporting a resolution to restart the EIS.
Because any environmental impact would primarily be in Montgomery County, it is not surprising that the primary opposition to the ICC seems to come from Montgomery County. (And that the vast majority of the press coverage deals with Montgomery County.) However, the impact of allowing the status quo is not only a Montgomery County issue. The Maryland Department of Transportation has predicted that by 2020 the "rush hour" on the Beltway will increase from the current five hours per day to over 14 hours per day. The region will be in crisis, not only Montgomery County, but Prince George's County and the District, suffering enormous traffic on a daily basis, changing the lifestyles of everyone around, from where people work, to where they go to have dinner, and especially where businesses choose to locate. The last draft study on the ICC was from 1997, and indicated that an ICC would "substantially reduce congestion" and divert approximately 15,000 cars from the Beltway.
The need for Montgomery County to reduce traffic is immediate. The I-270 technology corridor is well-known throughout the country and provides a vital base for jobs for the people of Montgomery County. But the effect of following the status quo would be to immobilize the regional traffic structure. With the enormous congestion on the Beltway, especially alongside Rockville Pike and I-270, the effect has been that drivers have turned to alternate routes to avoid the Beltway. The 1997 draft study indicated that with an ICC, nearly 80,000 drivers per day would be diverted from the arterial highways and roads, such as Route 29, so that communities that are not even directly affiliated with the Beltway would have relief from further traffic congestion and accidents.
What is less well-known is the potential need for an ICC in Prince George's County. Prince George's County does not (yet) have the same concentration of business and shops that Montgomery County has, with Montgomery County receiving four times the amount of commercial taxes as Prince George's County. However, Prince George's County has the potential to be an economic powerhouse in the region, having on average one of the highest household incomes in the country, and the purchasing power to attract national retailers. The Bowie Town Center that opened recently is merely one example of this. Other high retail shopping centers are planned for Greenbelt and the National Harbor Project in southern Prince George's County. These centers will provide new revenue and tourism to Prince George's County. The citizens of Prince George's County need to be prepared for the effect that the status quo would have on them. Any ICC that would be built would take at least a dozen years from now before completion. By that time, Prince George's County should have developed a maturity in its tax base and economic power to reach its potential. Yet, this potential may never be reached if the same traffic problems that are in Montgomery County today will be in Prince George's County in a dozen years, and if consumers from other counties are reluctant to make the trip.
The people in the D.C. Metropolitan region should have the freedom to travel from one county to another, without traffic being the primary decision-maker where one goes for dinner or to see a movie. Luckily, our public transportation system is one of the best in the country, but today has been stretched close to its limits. In order for our region to develop beyond expansion of public transportation, we need to establish a comprehensive ability for people wishing to travel by car, from Prince George's County to Montgomery County and vice-versa. It is not just the prospect of our citizens facing 14-hour rush hours that requires attention. Businesses will naturally be more disinclined to locate in the Maryland suburbs, and more inclined to leave an area full of highly educated workers. This will reduce the tax base, making it more difficult to have the resources we need to properly fund our schools. The EIS should be completed, as endorsed overwhelmingly by the House of Delegates and by the gubernatorial candidates this fall. Should the study determine that an ICC is environmentally sound, then our region should work together at using the ICC to reduce traffic congestion and improve the quality of life for our citizens.

Michael Wein is a former legislative aide in the Maryland General Assembly and a candidate for the House of Delegates in the 22nd Legislative District in Prince George's County.

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