The $166 Million-a-Mile Road
By Michele Dyson
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page B08
"The Holy Roman Empire," said Voltaire, "was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire."
Likewise, the intercounty connector (ICC) does not live up to its name. It is not a limited-access road that simply will connect two counties, as the Maryland State Highway Administration maintains. And if built, the ICC will turn into a crowded, dangerous and expensive bypass road overrun by heavy trucks. In the longer term, it also could be the stretch of pavement that leads to the construction of an outer Beltway.
The minimum proposed cost of the 18-mile ICC, including finance charges, is $3 billion. That is a staggering $166 million a mile. To afford this, Maryland proposes to max out its transportation credit card. It wants to issue financial instruments called Garvee bonds, which will allow it to borrow hundreds of millions for the road using future federal transportation aid as collateral.
If these bonds were issued, the ICC would devour 65 percent of Maryland's federal transportation funds for 15 to 20 years. Other transportation projects would have to wait. Maybe the ICC should be renamed Snakehead Road for all it has in common with that menacing fish.
When Interstate 81 opened in Virginia, it was designed for traffic in which trucks were expected to account for 15 percent of its volume. Today, heavy trucks account for 40 percent of traffic on that highway. I-81 has become so dangerous that Virginia officials are considering proposals to build truck-only lanes along their 325-mile portion of the highway.
If the ICC is built, the same scenario is likely. It would be an inviting road for every freight dispatcher from Florida to Canada because it will be seen as a route around the Washington area that will save time and fuel. In short order, the ICC would need as radical a remedy as I-81 now requires.
Maps of other proposed highway projects in the region make it clear that the ICC is just one part of a grand paving plan. Home builders and developers in Maryland and Virginia want this road, but they also are rabid proponents of another proposed highway called the Techway. Their wish list includes another Potomac River bridge crossing coupled with this large highway to connect Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland. Once completed, the Techway would join the ICC, continue to another proposed road, the Western Bypass, and, eventually, around to I-95.
To the east, developers have set their sights on making Route 301 a major highway and on building yet another river crossing south of the Wilson Bridge.
While the costs associated with this scheme boggle the mind, the lack of any concern regarding environmental loss is equally breathtaking. The Green Infrastructure Demonstration Project recently reported that the greater Washington area lost nearly half as much green space to development from 1986 to 2000 as it did in its all its prior history. Every day, 28 to 43 acres of Washington area green space falls to the bulldozers. If the ICC is built, northern Montgomery County would take particularly heavy casualties. Without doubt, six lanes and 18 miles of concrete ripping through neighborhoods, parks, forests and streams would have a huge effect on both individual and collective environments.
Most likely the answer to that eventually will be decided by a federal court.
Twice, the Environmental Protection Agency has rejected the ICC because it judged that it would cause unacceptable damage. For reasons unknown, Maryland's new "fast track" ICC study is expected to reverse these EPA findings. A small army of Maryland Department of Transportation surveyors and planners has been deployed along potential ICC sites and routes. They are writing down numbers, taking measurements and leaving behind markers that promise profound consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. Their reports and figures could become evidence in any court challenge to the ICC.
"Trust, but verify," Ronald Reagan advised. Given what's at stake here that's good advice. Someone should be checking the transportation department's fast-track arithmetic.
More wise words from Euripides: "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad." The Greek playwright never rode in a car, but he would have recognized that the ICC's $3 billion price tag and the financial and environmental destruction that lie in its path are madness.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company