User’s guide to Intercounty Connector

Robert Thomson
Columnist November 19, 2011

This week, drivers will begin to learn whether the east-west highway in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. was worth the half-century wait. While some of them scoff at the potential usefulness of the Intercounty Connector, others are writing in to make sure they know the exact hour of the new segment’s scheduled opening.

This driver’s guide addresses basic questions about traveling the highway after the new segment’s opening.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive
What’s opening this week?

Since February, drivers have been able to use six miles of Intercounty Connector between Interstate 370 in Shady Grove and Georgia Avenue, just south of Olney. This week, the next 10 miles of the six-lane highway will open to I-95, near Laurel. The opening will create highway connections at Layhill Road, New Hampshire Avenue, Route 29 (Columbia Pike) and Briggs Chaney Road, as well as at I-95.

Exactly when will it open?

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which administers the highway, has scheduled the opening for 6 a.m. Tuesday. It’s possible that conditions could allow a slightly earlier opening, but the target is 6 a.m. It’s also possible that bad weather or a last-minute snag could force a brief delay. When icy conditions were forecast for the February opening of the first segment, the schedule fell back a day.

Will I get a free ride?

Yes. The Intercounty Connector was built to be a toll road, but the MTA is going to offer a free test-drive period, just as it did when the first segment opened. The free rides — over the entire length of the connector, including the part previously opened — will continue through Dec. 4. The free period is an opportunity for drivers to see if the new highway will save them time. But it also will be a chance for the MTA to test its electronic tolling equipment before collecting revenue.

Free for Thanksgiving week?

Yes, and that’s been on the minds of some holiday travelers. Because it opens up a highway link between I-270 and I-95 north of the congested Capital Beltway, drivers on the west side of the D.C. region are correctly thinking they can use the connector as a shortcut to Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.

What happened at Norbeck Road?

The Intercounty Connector link at Norbeck Road, just east of the Georgia Avenue interchange, closed this month. It was a temporary accommodation that planners hoped would distribute traffic across an area that served briefly as the eastern terminus for the highway. All traffic entering and exiting the connector in the Olney area will now use the Georgia Avenue interchange.

How do I pay the toll?

Don’t worry about finding the tolling points. They will find you. The tolls will be collected electronically as vehicles pass under brown gantries that span the highway. Devices on the gantries will communicate with the ­E-ZPass transponders on vehicles and assess the toll. The tolls are collected at highway speed, and the Intercounty Connector speed limit is 55 mph.

For vehicles without E-ZPass devices, video cameras on the gantries will record images of the license plates, and the vehicle owners will be sent a bill.

What is the toll?

When toll collection begins Dec. 5, drivers of cars and light trucks with an E-ZPass transponder will pay a peak toll rate of 25 cents per mile, an off-peak rate of 20 cents per mile and an overnight rate of 10 cents per mile. That’s the same per-mile rate they’ve been paying since the connector’s first segment opened.

Driving from one end of the connector to the other will cost $4 at peak periods (6 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays), $3.20 off-peak and $1.60 overnight (11 p.m. to 5 a.m.).

Owners of vehicles without an E-ZPass will receive a bill in the mail charging them a Video Toll Rate for a trip on the connector. The charge generally will be 150 percent of the E-ZPass toll rate, but there is a minimum video surcharge of $1 and a maximum of $15. (When the connector’s first segment opened, drivers were assessed a $3 service charge on top of the toll.)

Should I get an E-ZPass?

If you think you’re going to be a regular user of the connector, even if not an everyday user, you’ll really want to have an E-ZPass. But many drivers chafed at the MTA’s monthly charge of $1.50 to maintain their E-ZPass accounts.

While some drivers still may seek to establish accounts in other jurisdictions to save money, Maryland has modified its account system. Under the new rules, the month’s account fee will be waived for accounts used to pay at least three tolls in the previous month in Maryland.

Will the connector save me time?

Traffic on the already-open portion remains light. The volume is likely to increase once the new segment opens and the highway becomes more useful to more drivers. But the connector still is likely to provide a quick, reliable trip for a long time to come.

“The morning commute between Laurel and Gaithersburg takes about 47 minutes on stop-and-go local roads,” Harold M. Bartlett, the MTA’s executive secretary, said in a statement. “This same trip will take just more than 17 minutes on the ICC.”

The question for drivers isn’t so much whether travel on the Intercounty Connector will be quick but rather whether their overall trips — say, from Columbia to Bethesda — will be quicker when they use the connector as the middle part of the route.

At this point, it’s tough to envision the connector — with that route and those tolls — as an everyday solution for a horde of commuters. In its early days, the highway is more likely to serve an immediate solution to the problem of a particular day, when commuters are delayed and need to make up time.

We plan to test the connector’s usefulness and report back, so write to transportation@washpost.com and suggest some commuting origins and destinations for us to try.

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