A week before thousands of motorists descend upon 7.2 miles of new asphalt, construction on the Intercounty Connector's first segment is nonstop as workers finish the final touches: erecting enormous green exit signs, installing guardrails and completing fences to keep the deer out.
"There's a lot to get done," said Melinda Peters, the Maryland State Highway Administration's project director on the ICC's construction. "We have hundreds of people working around the clock. It's not a mad rush, but we want to make sure everything is perfect and ready to go."
In a media tour Tuesday of what highway signs will refer to as "Route 200," Peters and Maryland Transportation Authority officials stressed the need for motorists to buy E-ZPass transponders if they want to use the all-electronic toll road without having to pay an additional $3 fee. Peters also highlighted the aesthetics of the six-lane highway's "earth-toned" overpasses with fake stone facades and arched steel girders.
The first stretch - in Montgomery County between Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg and Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring - is scheduled to open at 6 a.m. Feb. 22. State officials said they expect traffic to build gradually, up to 21,500 vehicles daily, while only the first segment is open.
After the rest of the highway, stretching east to Interstate 95 in Prince George's County, opens late this year or in early 2012, an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 vehicles are anticipated daily, said Harold M. Bartlett, the authority's acting executive secretary.
Tolls for passenger vehicles on the first segment will be $1.45 during the peak morning and evening rushes, $1.15 during off-peak hours and 60 cents from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. The highway will be free for the first two weeks, until March 7.
The ICC will be Maryland's first toll road with no toll booths. Tolls will be collected electronically via E-ZPass transponders as vehicles move at highway speeds. Motorists without transponders will receive a "Notice of Toll Due" in the mail. A $3 administrative fee will be added to the toll. That fee will be waived for the first 30 days after toll collections begin.
Although not quite ready for prime time, the ICC's first section has the basics: pavement and striping, overhead tolling equipment and lights. The landscaping consists primarily of small trees poking out of dirt mounds but will be finished this spring, Peters said.
One noticeable detail still missing: the 55 mph speed limit signs.
"They will be up before the road opens," Peters said with a smile.
The Transportation Authority, which will operate the ICC, does not plan to install speed cameras, but the authority will assign its own police to the highway, Bart lett said.
Motorists are likely to note with interest the shiny white tiles lining a short tunnel carrying the ICC beneath Olde Mill Run in Derwood, just east of the Redland Road overpass. The white tiles and white concrete road bed will help reflect light inside the tunnel, Peters said.
The highway's effects on the neighborhoods it passes through are readily apparent. Some homes are so close that motorists will easily see curtains in upstairs bedroom windows. Wheaton and Olney residents will be able to take Exit 9 to get home via Georgia Avenue.
Motorists will enter and leave the highway on the first section's eastern end via a temporary ramp at Norbeck Road (Route 28), about a half-mile east of Georgia near the northern entrance to the Leisure World retirement community. That will help highway traffic avoid the already jammed intersection at Norbeck and Georgia, Peters said. That ramp will disappear after the rest of the highway opens. Then ICC traffic will enter and exit via Georgia Avenue.
Peters said the first segment will be finished within its $478-million construction budget. The entire 18.8-mile highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel is budgeted at $2.56 billion.