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For Ehrlich, a Return to Routine

Governor Brushes Aside O'Malley Flap, Touts Connector Road

By Cameron W. Barr and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page B01

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. got back to basics yesterday: promoting his top transportation priority, the proposed intercounty connector between Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and lunching with some of his leading backers, members of Maryland's business community.

Speaking at the Beltsville offices of the State Highway Administration, Ehrlich (R) said he was pushing the connector as a means of countering cynicism about the credibility of government. He said that building the highway would yield "a restoration of faith in government's ability to promise an important project and deliver it."

Robert Shreeve, left, of the state environmental program division explains a wetlands plan to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and administration members. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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Following a week in which he accepted the resignation of a longtime aide for propagating rumors about a political opponent's sex life, he said there was no reason popular faith in his own administration might need shoring up. "My credibility was not questioned," he said flatly. Ehrlich said last week that his former aide, Joseph Steffen, had acted alone.

The governor spent most of the day in Montgomery attending a series of long-scheduled events. He led four Cabinet secretaries and a gaggle of reporters on a bus tour designed to show off projects intended to mitigate the environmental impact of the connector. The six-lane highway would run 18 to 20 miles between Interstate 270 and Interstate 95.

State officials said they plan to spend $270 million -- out of an estimated cost of $2.4 billion before financing -- on mitigation and "cultural enhancement" projects. These include longer, more expensive bridges over Rock Creek and other waterways to minimize disruption of sensitive habitats.

Yesterday Ehrlich visited the site of a proposed wetlands expansion project north of Great Seneca Creek and peered into the gurgling, rain-fed waters of Indian Creek, which would be cleaned up and refurbished as part of the highway's construction. He gazed out of his bus at a 19th-century barn that would be turned into a visitors center and become a "gateway" to the Sandy Spring historic area.

Environmentalists and "smart growth" planners, who generally have opposed the highway, said the mitigation efforts do not add up to a compelling reason to build the road.

Lee Epstein, director of the lands program for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the highway would cause the loss of 800 acres of forest and promote development on thousands of acres of undeveloped land. "I just can't think that the modest impact of these [mitigation] projects will make up for that," he said.

The foundation and other groups urged the state last month to consider alternatives to the connector, such as spending the money on mass transit projects and on encouraging job development closer to people's homes.

At a luncheon for business leaders that drew 500 people, Ehrlich was in good humor, joking at one point that his business and economic secretary is "the best . . . I've ever had." In fact, he's the only one Ehrlich has ever had. During his wide-ranging remarks, and in audience questions later, the Steffen dismissal was not mentioned.

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) and Cabinet secretaries, Ehrlich ticked off business-friendly issues pushed by his administration and several tax proposals he had vetoed or otherwise worked to stop.

He was most animated when touting his commitment to building the connector, which enjoys wide support among members of the Montgomery business community.

"I don't want the intercounty connector to be a punch line for local jokes anymore," Ehrlich said to applause. "This road will be built. Believe me."

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