- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2002

The signs dot two-lane roads that wander across the sparsely populated areas of northern Montgomery County, blue-and-white markers that are the only hint of long-dead plans to run a highway through the region.
Some lean precariously, others are faded slightly from several years on the roadside. Their message reads "Study Underway Intercounty Connector," marking them as relics of yet another stalled road project in the Washington area.
Those signs may prove useful again. The Intercounty Connector, a defunct highway proposal that the county and state have fought fiercely over for years, may have received a second life from the Nov. 5 elections.
From governor down to the Montgomery County Council, most elected officials now support reviving the highway project that many believe will help ease the traffic crush of the Washington suburbs.
The highway, also known as the ICC, has existed on Washington-area planning maps for years. In theory, the east-west road would act as an outlet for the Capital Beltway, linking the heavily traveled Interstate 95 in Prince George's County with Interstate 270 as it runs north into western Maryland.
"The mandate these candidates were given by the voters was to support this project," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who ran an aggressive campaign to elect a pro-Intercounty Connector county council.
Some residents criticize the plan because they fear a new highway would enable people to live farther away from their work, pushing the crowded Washington suburbs deeper into the county's agricultural regions. But local groups, especially businesses worried about attracting enough workers, have said it is the best solution to gridlock.
Campaigns at all levels tried to capitalize on the region's traffic woes in the recent elections.
Republicans ran ads that claimed Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic candidate for governor, ignored the issue and were partly to blame for gridlock. A local business group called Citizens for a Quality Living ran its own ads before the primary, demanding the ICC be built.
Candidates may have been responding to polls that showed strong support for the ICC. A late-September survey of the 8th Congressional District race conducted by Potomac Inc. showed 63 percent of voters backed the ICC to 20 percent who didn't want the highway.
The governor has a big say in which transportation projects get built and receive federal funding. With the ICC, the governor would start the process by ordering an environmental impact study of the road.
Mr. Glendening initially approved a study of the project, but changed his mind in 1999. In canceling the study, he called the ICC an "environmental nightmare," saying it would prompt sprawl and damage sensitive agricultural land. He promised that work on the ICC never would go forward under his administration.
That will change when Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. takes office in January the environmental study will be restarted "immediately," said Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick.
Mr. Ehrlich already has asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to give the ICC proposal high priority in the federal transportation funding budget. Montgomery County Executive's Office also has sent a letter to Mr. Mineta requesting fast-track approval.
"We believe Montgomery County has waited long enough," Mr. Schurick said. "This needs to be the top highway construction priority."
The Montgomery County Council was long one of the staunchest opponents of the ICC, refusing to back the project or commit county money to the road. Their input, while carrying little legal weight, was an important message to state planners that residents opposed the highway.
But Mr. Duncan, who had no real opposition for county executive, focused much of his money and time on replacing council members opposed to the ICC. His "End Gridlock" campaign spent more than $350,000 to help defeat the incumbents who voted against the ICC and swing the council to 6-3 in favor of the road.
"I ran this election on transportation and asked people to elect a council that is going to get things done. They've got the votes there to do it now," Mr. Duncan said.
Critics say the campaign for the ICC misled voters about the authority of the council and the timing and cost of the road.
The ICC likely will cost more than the roughly $1.5 billion estimate from several years ago and could take more than 10 years to build too long to provide any immediate traffic relief, said council member Phil Andrews.
ICC supporters also dramatically overstated the role of the council in the debate, he said. The panel can make only recommendations on the road, while the decision on whether to go forward rests with the state.
"We don't make a decision on the highway. It was a great disservice to suggest to voters that if you select a council that supports the ICC, it will be built," Mr. Andrews said.
ICC opponents call for better land-use policies, not more highways, as a way to reduce traffic. Focusing development on established urban areas or around Metro stations in Prince George's County would take drivers off the road, said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
The ICC never will pass federal environmental standards protecting wetlands, forests and streams, Mr. Andrews said. Studies suggest the road may not take much pressure off Beltway traffic and could create jams of its own.
"We're confident all the information will show the full highway cannot be legally built and that other alternatives will have to be found," said Mr. Schwartz.


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