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Marc Fisher

Something's Awfully Fishy About the ICC

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page B01

I like my trout with lemon and capers. But if you like yours swimming in a peaceful stream not far from your suburban lair, then your position on the intercounty connector, the region's biggest road project since the Beltway, is easy.

This is a simple enough call for Tim Zink, who works for Trout Unlimited, a fisheries protection group based in Arlington. Zink and fellow sportsmen savor a spot along the Paint Branch stream where you can hear the breeze in the trees and fish for native brown trout.

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"It's the closest place in the area to get away from it all," says Zink, who can reach the stream from Hyattsville in 25 minutes. The water is no wider than a fishing rod is long. This is no wild river, but its existence in such an urban setting is a minor marvel.

The trout have survived thanks to strict land-use rules -- and the four-decade battle over the 18-mile highway that would link Interstates 270 and 95 across northern Montgomery County. Build it, Zink says, and bye-bye trout.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees that the ICC would damage the woods and streams. But the ICC is Gov. Bobby Haircut's top priority, and Montgomery voters chose a new council pledged to make the ICC Job 1. You can already hear the earthmovers revving their engines.

The state promises to ease the damage by lengthening bridges and creating new wetlands where construction destroys existing ones. But highway builders use bulldozers, not scalpels. All sides agree the forest home of frogs, owls and woodpeckers would be swept away.

The state's record doesn't breed confidence in its promises. Until recently, the ICC plan included a hiking and biking path parallel to the highway -- this, Gov. Bob Ehrlich's staff contended, proved that the ICC would be environmentally sensitive. Now the path has vanished from the plan. Sorry, too expensive, the state said.

On a map, the ICC makes sense. Given the huge growth in the outer counties, why should the Beltway be the only major east-west thoroughfare linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties? In theory, this is one road that could be built not to pave the way for new development, but to ease the crunch for current residents.

But the counterarguments are also strong: Prince George's residents tend to loathe the ICC because it would cement existing imbalances, letting even more people live in Prince George's and work in Montgomery. The state's own studies show that the highway would provide remarkably little relief for Beltway commuters.

The most compelling fact about the ICC, however, has nothing to do with trout, frogs, trees or even cars. It is simply this: The pre-construction price of the ICC is $2.4 billion. This is a red alert that we are in for the local equivalent of Boston's Big Dig, the $15 billion road project that holds the U.S. record for cost overruns, corruption and abuse of the taxpayer.

Highway boosters claim that roads are economical, costing just $10 million a mile versus $25 million per mile for light rail. But the ICC would cost $130 million a mile, and you can bet your house that number will soar.

The ICC would take at least 20 percent of the state's federal highway funds for the next 15 years. That, Montgomery council member Tom Perez notes, would kill any chance of building the Purple Line, the proposed Metro route between Bethesda and New Carrollton: "How can you expect any delegate from Harford or Baltimore County to say, 'Hey, we just gave 20 percent of our federal funds for the whole state to one roadway in another county, and now we're going to do it again?' Not going to happen."

For the price of the ICC, you could build Montgomery and Prince George's top 25 road projects. You could improve east-west travel by widening Norbeck, Spencerville and Muncaster Mill roads. "The ICC is enormously expensive because it's so environmentally destructive that they have to spend hundreds of millions to try to mitigate that damage," says council member Phil Andrews. "There are cost-effective alternatives."

For the price of the ICC, you could reduce class sizes, build all needed school additions and house every homeless person in the two counties.

Or build one stretch of highway and still sit in traffic. You needn't be a trout-lover or tree-hugger to realize the ICC is an obscenely expensive racket.

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