- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The speeches were delivered, the ribbons were cut and the signs were unveiled. After years of planning and construction, the only thing left was for Maryland motorists to drive the first stretch of the Intercounty Connector.

The highway, called the ICC, started getting vehicle traffic about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, and more than 10,000 cars and trucks had used the road by 11 a.m., Maryland Transportation Authority spokeswoman Cheryl Sparks said. Officials expect the 7-mile portion of the roadway to eventually carry about 21,500 vehicles per day.

“It will provide a reliable alternative,” Ms. Sparks said. “We want people to go out and see what a time benefit there is.”

The ICC is scheduled to eventually span 18.8 miles, from Interstate 370 in Gaithersburg east to U.S. Route 1 in Laurel. The portion the state opened Wednesday stretches from Gaithersburg to Maryland Route 97 in Olney.

Department of Transportation officials said the highway cuts travel times between I-370 and Route 97 from about 22 minutes to about seven minutes.

Transportation officials point out that the $2.6 billion toll highway was not designed to relieve congestion on the Capital Beltway, on Interstate 270 in Montgomery County or on Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County. Instead, they say, the six-lane highway, known officially as Maryland Route 200, will improve mobility in the rapidly growing corridor between the heavily traveled roadways.

Workers put finishing touches on the highway late Tuesday and early Wednesday by cleaning surfaces and uncovering road signs. The opening of the highway had been delayed a day from Tuesday morning because of forecasts of severe winter weather.

The final delay seemed fitting for a project so long in the making.

The idea of a Montgomery-to-Prince George’s highway was discussed for decades before Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, pushed for state and federal funds to build the ICC in the mid-2000s. A project design was finalized in 2006, and construction began in 2007.

“The ICC helps Marylanders. It helps hardworking Marylanders get part of their lives back,” Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday. “Instead of sitting in traffic, they actually will be able to get home.”

While proponents have said the highway will ease congestion on many residential roads and create jobs by making areas along the route more accessible, some critics have argued that the road will bring pollution and disturb residents nearby.

“It went across numerous stream valley parks and wetlands … [and] will increase sprawl and traffic,” said Steve Caflisch, transportation chairman of the Sierra Club’s Maryland Chapter, which protested at Monday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Officials hope to extend the ICC to I-95 in Laurel by early 2012, bringing its total length to about 17 miles. A third, nearly 2-mile portion connecting to Route 1 in Laurel has been postponed indefinitely.

Transportation officials are encouraging motorists to try out the road free of charge for about two weeks; traffic was pleasantly light during rush hour Wednesday morning.

Beginning March 7, travel will cost cars and small trucks 25 cents per mile from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, with 15-cent-per-mile rates during off-peak hours and 10-cent-per-mile rates overnight.

The ICC is the state’s first all-electronic toll road. It will collect fees using E-ZPass technology rather than booths or attendants.

ICC users will be required to use E-ZPass, including a windshield device from which toll costs are deducted electronically.

Those caught driving the road without an account after March 7 will be mailed a bill for the toll amount, accompanied by a $3 service charge beginning April 6.

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