The Montgomery County Council gave its final approval yesterday to the proposed east-west intercounty connector, capping a four-decade debate on the council over the 18-mile highway.
The 6 to 3 vote, however, came amid new signs that the future of the road linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties is still far from assured. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a letter yesterday renewing its objections to the road's impact on streams, wetlands and forests.
In a Feb. 25 letter to federal and state officials, posted yesterday on the agency's Web site, Regional Administrator Donald S. Welsh said the route approved by the council, known as the southern alignment, would lead to "direct, indirect and cumulative impacts" on the environment, including damage to streams with the area's only reproducing trout.
Welsh suggested that the northern route rejected by the council, along the Route 28-Route 198 corridor, would cause less environmental damage. But even that path posed a risk, he said.
"Both . . . alternatives have significant adverse impacts to the environment," Welsh wrote to Nelson J. Castellanos, division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration.
Similar concerns from the EPA in the mid-1990s caused then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to withdraw his support for the project.
Council members were caught unawares yesterday by the EPA's letter but said they were not fazed. "We have always known that this was going to be a challenge, because we established a transportation corridor through parkland," said Nancy Flooreen (D-At Large). "If the EPA had its way, maybe we wouldn't have built the Beltway 50 years ago."
Environmental leaders said the EPA's resistance could make things harder for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He has designated the connector his top transportation priority and promised to begin construction next year, but first he must obtain the necessary federal permits.
"These comments are going to present some challenges for the Federal Highway Administration, and it raises significant issues for the Army Corps of Engineers, that has to consider wetland permits, and the fish and wildlife agencies," said Michael Replogle, transportation director for Environmental Defense, an organization opposed to the highway.
Yesterday's council approval -- a nonbinding recommendation that will become part of the state's environmental impact study -- was widely expected. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect a pro-connector slate of council candidates in 2002.
State officials said they continue to study the two proposed routes, one that would slice through the northern part of the county and the original southern route that has been in the county's master plan for 40 years. They said they will choose one of the routes this spring.
Before the vote, a council member opposed to the highway released a study detailing how a developer with a major project planned near both proposed routes employed a loophole in the state's campaign finance law by donating tens of thousands of dollars to Ehrlich (R) through various corporate entities.
"This makes a mockery of the state campaign finance laws and a mockery to the claim that the ICC is about traffic relief and not more development," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg). He was joined in opposition to the road by council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) and Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County).
Andrews said that Kingdon Gould Jr., developer of a proposed residential and retail project in Laurel, had donated $129,000 to Maryland politicians since 1999 through his family and a dozen corporate entities he controls.
The donations include $52,000 to Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) when they were running for office in 2002. The two Democrats considering challenging Ehrlich in 2006 also have received money from Gould since 1999, according to Andrews's report: $5,300 to Duncan and $9,000 to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
Maryland law limits individuals and corporations to $4,000 in donations to any candidate during a four-year cycle. But the law allows donors to "bundle" contributions through various corporate entities.
Calls to Gould Properties were not returned yesterday. Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver called Andrews's accusation a "lame and pathetic attempt to distract the attention of the vast majority of his constituents who support the ICC."
Staff writers Nancy Trejos and John Wagner contributed to this report.