Connector Highway Clears EPA Review

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

The intercounty connector, a suburban Maryland highway 50 years in the making, moved a significant step closer to a 2006 construction start yesterday when the federal government declared the project environmentally sound.

The decision comes about eight years after the Environmental Projection Agency rejected the highway in 1997 over concerns that the project would destroy parkland and wetlands, disrupt migratory birds and threaten a spawning area for brown trout.

The next and last approval for the project could come in the spring, when the federal government makes its final determination on the highway after a public comment period. If the project gets the go-ahead, which state officials said they expect, the state will begin buying land and houses along the route and putting out bids for construction.

In addition to bringing the first major highway to the Washington region in a generation, the approval, announced by the Federal Highway Administration, is also a boost to the political fortunes of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who faces reelection in November four years after making construction of the road a campaign promise.

"This means we are on track to fulfill Governor Ehrlich's commitment to start construction of the intercounty connector later this year," said Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan.

The 18-mile toll road would be one of the most expensive transportation projects in the region, with a price tag of $2.4 billion that could rise to $3 billion after financing costs.

A route for the six-lane highway was announced in July and would cut through a mixture of parkland and residential communities between the Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 corridors -- in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, respectively.

Opponents contend that the project would harm the environment. In 1999, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) canceled a highway study, citing environmental concerns.

State officials said they have made changes to address those concerns since a draft of the review was released in November 2004. Those include removing access ramps from Old Columbia Pike near the Avonshire Community, creating eight acres of parkland for every acre affected, increasing storm-water management controls and reducing the impact on waterways and forest habitat.

State officials also said they would consider building a pedestrian crossing to ease disruption to the Longmead community.

The state government, which is responsible for releasing the 2,700-page federal document, has not yet done so. Maryland officials said it was finalized late Monday night, and they need until the end of the week to make copies and to post the review on a Web site.

Opponents said yesterday that they were frustrated that they didn't have the report in hand and promised to highlight potential problems when it becomes public.

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