- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

Maryland transportation officials yesterday released a draft environmental impact statement for the Washington area’s Intercounty Connector, calling the study a major milestone toward making the long-delayed project a reality.

The 1,455-page report was completed in just 18 months under a streamlined review process approved by the Bush administration.

Despite the expedited process — a similar study in the 1990s took five years — Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said the review was “more thorough and complete than the traditional process.”

Mr. Flanagan and other state officials said the report shows that the highway, which would connect Interstate 95 with Interstate 270 and provide an alternate to the congested Capital Beltway for east-west traffic in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, can be built without undue damage to the environment.

The Intercounty Connector, a top priority of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., would cost between $1.8 billion and $2.2 billion in 2004 dollars, Mr. Flanagan said.

Every year of delay would add about $100 million to the price tag, he said.

The plans outlined in the environmental impact statement are designed to exceed requirements of federal and state laws and to limit environmental damage during and after construction, Mr. Flanagan said.

Environmentalists had not seen the new report, but were skeptical about the conclusions and critical of the speedy process.

“They are making rather grandiose statements about the process, which there is no way to verify,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Maryland.

“This is a ‘don’t look too carefully and you won’t see all the faults’ process,” she said.

“It just heightens suspicions about what’s really going on here.”

Copies of the study will be available at some libraries in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and on the Web at www.iccstudy.org.

Neil J. Pedersen, head of the State Highway Administration, said Marylanders can offer comments and make suggestions by letter or e-mail or by calling 1-866/462-0020.

Three public hearings are scheduled in January in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Mr. Pedersen said the state hopes to have a final environmental impact statement ready by next spring.

If the decision is made to proceed with the project, construction could begin in 2006, and the highway could be open to traffic by 2010, Mr. Flanagan said.

But the project has drawn strong opposition from environmental groups, and there have been threats of a lawsuit to stop construction of the highway.

Environmentalists argue that the highway will destroy wetlands, kill wildlife, increase noise and air pollution and lead to increased suburban sprawl.

“This doesn’t solve the problem in my view,” said Neil Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Society.

“It’s an ill-conceived project. We need to look at other alternatives.”

The Intercounty Connector has a long and contentious history.

The idea of an east-west highway was first proposed in the 1950s, long before the burst of suburban growth that clogged major highways in the Washington suburbs.

Pressure to build the highway grew through the 1980s and 1990s, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening sided with opponents. The project was shelved until Mr. Ehrlich, who promised to revive it, was elected governor two years ago.

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