By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006
The public comment period for the intercounty connector ends today, despite objections from the highway's opponents, moving the decades-old project a step closer to a 2006 construction start, Maryland officials said yesterday.
In the final step before the state starts buying land and building the road, the Federal Highway Administration will review comments submitted by residents and interest groups and will render a final decision on the project. State officials said they expect a favorable decision this spring and plan to begin construction as soon as this summer.
"We've worked very closely with [the Federal Highway Administration]; we've done our homework and don't expect any surprises," Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said. "We will be turning earth this year."
The connector is planned as an 18-mile, six-lane highway that would link Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 in the northern parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The highway's estimated cost is $2.4 billion and could rise to $3 billion with financing costs, state officials said. Maryland plans to pay for it with a combination of available money, debt and toll revenue.
The connector has been on and off planning maps since the 1950s and appeared gone for good as recently as 1999. It was reborn in the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who has made the highway his top transportation priority. He says it is needed to connect Maryland's business community to its main airport and port.
Opponents, who say that the connector will degrade the environment and lead to more suburban sprawl, said yesterday that the public comment period should be extended because of errors in the state's environmental analyses and because of growing public opposition.
Members of the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Coalition for Smarter Growth said the results of a newly released poll they helped finance showed that the public is turning against the project.
In an initial question on the connector, 59 percent of poll respondents said they "somewhat" or "strongly" favored building the highway, and 30 percent "somewhat" or "strongly" opposed it. After a series of questions highlighting some of the traffic impacts of the road and projected toll costs, support dropped to 46 percent; opposition rose to 40 percent. In both cases, the remainder of respondents said that they were "not sure."
"Support is falling for the ICC as people learn about it," said Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), citing the poll results.
The poll was limited to registered Montgomery County Democrats who plan to vote in their party's gubernatorial primary in the fall. Aside from 17 questions on the connector requested by the environmental groups, the poll also asked respondents about the governor's race and other issues.
"We chose Democratic voters, because that's who votes in Montgomery County," said Larry Harris of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the survey.
The poll queried 500 people between March 9 and 14 and has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points, Harris said.
Flanagan dismissed the results of the poll and said "further extensions are just an excuse for delay," noting that the state had agreed to extend the standard 30-day comment period to 75 days.