The 18.8-mile Intercounty Connector, which opened in full Tuesday, could be the last publicly funded highway built in Maryland for a generation, as the state’s tolling agency, which financed its $2.56 billion construction, reaches its debt limit, local transportation experts said.
Financing for the six-lane toll road linking Interstate 270 in Montgomery County with Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County leveraged the Maryland Transportation Authority’s statewide toll collections.
Intercounty Connector route
This video was shot on Feb. 23, the morning of the opening of the first phase of the Intercounty Connector (ICC). The rest of the superhighway opens on Tuesday, Nov. 22, including the key stretch linking I-270 with I-95.
But the transportation authority’s debt capacity is tapped out from borrowing to build the ICC and $1 billion in express toll lanes on I-95 northeast of Baltimore, state budget analysts said. Mounting debt recently prompted the authority to raise tolls statewide as the authority also struggles to maintain its aging bridges, tunnels and roads.
“You’re probably looking at another 20 years before we see another major road like this be built,” said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Supporters say the ICC provides a vital east-west link long missing from Maryland’s highway network, but some critics worry about the toll road’s long-term financial effects. They say the ICC’s hefty price — it’s the most expensive road Maryland has ever built — has hamstrung the state’s transportation finances for years.
“The state has mortgaged its transportation future in many ways to the ICC,” said Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), a longtime critic of the highway. “The opportunity cost of building the ICC has been huge, because it’s foreclosed improving many other roads.”
Whether the highway proves worth the investment — and at what cost — will play out over the next 10 to 30 years in several key measures: how many vehicles the ICC absorbs from local roads, time saved by motorists who use it, job growth from companies that rely on it to attract workers, and the impact it has on local streams and air pollution.
“The road, from an economic standpoint, will pay for itself many times over,” said Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who helped put together the ICC’s financing plan in 2005 when he represented Montgomery in the General Assembly.
‘Wouldn’t be built’
Borrowing heavily to build a mega-project is par for the course in transportation. What’s different about the ICC debt is how the state plans to pay it back.
Like other states, Maryland has found that gas tax revenue traditionally used to finance road-building hasn’t kept pace because more fuel-efficient vehicles have eaten into gasoline consumption and politicians have been loath to raise the tax. With the ICC, Maryland began shifting transportation construction costs to toll payers, as Virginia has done to help finance a Metrorail extension and to widen the Capital Beltway.
The ICC “wouldn’t be built without tolls — that was the reality of the cost of building that road,” said former Maryland transportation secretary Robert L. Flanagan, who oversaw the ICC financing plan for then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).