Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., amid a few protesters, formally broke ground on the $2.45 billion Intercounty Connector yesterday, a day after he said the federal government approved the project.

Mr. Ehrlich said yesterday that the Federal Highway Administration on Monday night approved the six-lane, 18-mile highway that would link Interstates 270 and 95 in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Construction is expected to begin this fall, with portions of the road opening throughout 2010.

“I rest my case,” Mr. Ehrlich said, as he and other state and regional officials hoisted shovels filled with dirt from a meadow in Montgomery County near the site where the highway will begin.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican who is seeking re-election in the fall, also made public a sign that read, “ICC Starts Here,” along Interstate 370, just past the Shady Grove Road overpass north of Rockville.

He said the highway would reduce traffic congestion and travel times on the Capital Beltway between I-270 and I-95.

“It will give back thousands of hours of time to our constituents,” he said.

He said the nine interchanges and a single intersection located along the route between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will ease congestion at nearly 40 key points around the Maryland suburbs. There also will be express bus service to connect to Metro and MARC railroad stations along the corridor.

The ICC is expected to handle about 85,000 vehicles a day, including 4,400 buses.

Critics argue that the road construction could devastate surrounding neighborhoods and spur development that could further clog existing routes.

Yesterday, protesters heckled Mr. Ehrlich and held signs, including one that read: “$3 Billion Is A Lot of Dough To Make Traffic Really Slow.”

Dolores Milmoe, a spokeswoman for the Audubon Naturalist Society, predicted that local roads along the ICC would become more congested. She also said the project will cost more, in part because in the past six months the price of steel has gone up 70 percent and the price of asphalt has increased 25 percent.

The project will be built as a toll road, with drivers paying an estimated $7 to $10 per day for round-trip commutes. The highway will be equipped with EZ Pass technology.

Critics said tolls would deter drivers from using the ICC.

“The toll highway does nothing to reduce congestion on the Beltway, I-270 , or I-95,” said Chris Carney, a spokesman for the Sierra Club’s D.C. chapter, one of several groups that have opposed the project for years under the banner of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Mr. Ehrlich told protesters yesterday that the project is moving forward.

“Those signs are now mute,” he said, referring to the placards that the protesters held yesterday. “Those signs are a sign of a past era.”

Local groups support the ICC.

“It’s a critical, critical project. This is the best thing that can be done to defeat gridlock in Montgomery County,” said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“We are delighted that, after decades of study, analysis and advocacy on behalf of the Board of Trade and numerous other groups, the ICC will now become a reality,” said Samuel A. Schreiber, chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and regional president of Wachovia Bank’s D.C.-area market.

A University of Maryland study shows that the project will generate more than 14,000 jobs in the two counties and nearly $7 billion for the state’s economy. The Maryland State Highway Administration will manage the design and construction through five contracts. The Maryland Transportation Authority will operate and maintain the ICC.

Sixteen federal, state and local organizations met 37 times to plan for protecting the environment, Mr. Ehrlich said. Low-level roads, sound barriers and other enhancements will lessen noise and block views of traffic from surrounding communities.

More than 700 acres of forest will be created and 20,000 water feet will be restored for Northwest Branch, Indian Creek, Paint Branch and Upper Paint Branch. Longer bridges and storm-water controls, and 83 acres of wetlands replacement are expected to protect fish and wildlife and improve the environment.

Mr. Ehrlich credited Sen. Rona E. Kramer, Montgomery County Democrat and daughter of former Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer, for insisting that a tunnel be built under Georgia Avenue, instead of an overpass.

“An overpass would have created a massive traffic mess and sight,” Mrs. Kramer said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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