Intercounty Connector

Impact Statement Prompts Threat Of Renewed Environmental Fight

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A coalition of environmental and civic groups blasted Maryland's 10,000-page environmental impact statement for the intercounty connector, threatening more legal challenges to a highway project that has been on the drawing board for 50 years.

Michael Replogle, transportation director for Environmental Defense, called the study "a massive papering-over" of what he called the project's failure to relieve traffic congestion and its potential harm to air, wetlands and wildlife. "It simply falls far short of what the law requires this project to pay attention to."

Replogle said the groups were waiting to see how federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, respond to the study, which is required for federal approval, before announcing their next move. However, he said, "You need only look at [opponents'] comments to get the hint there are some serious legal issues here. This project is not a done deal."

The 18-mile highway would link Interstates 270 and 95 in the northern Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Currently, the ICC is projected to cost about $2.4 billion to build, with finance costs bringing the tab to $3 billion.

The State Highway Administration projects that by midyear it will have spent $29 million on the studies and reports compiled in the impact statement.

The study "is the most comprehensive environmental impact statement ever prepared for a transportation project in the history of the state of Maryland," said State Highway Administrator Neil Pedersen. "We worked closely with the environmental agencies on the methodology, process and ensuring that the results were objective and complete." He said federal and state agencies involved in reviewing the final environmental impact statement were satisfied with the report.

The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, which backs the project, called the opposition's studies "bogus."

"A study of the ICC by anti-ICC lobbying groups is about as credible as a Tobacco Institute study on how smoking is good for you," Richard Parsons, the chamber president, said in a statement. "The public record on this project includes official study after official study, dating back for decades, all confirming the major traffic relief benefits of the ICC, so to say otherwise isn't even credible."

In 129 pages of objections to the ICC report, opponents, including several groups that have fought the project for decades, said planners failed to investigate cheaper, cleaner alternatives to the region's traffic woes, including Metrorail expansion and managed lanes on existing highways. Their response was released to coincide with today's close of the report's public comment period.

"The study finds that the ICC would trigger 4,500 acres of additional development, that wouldn't happen if it were not built," said Laura Olsen, assistant director of the D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. "But there's no consideration of what that development would do to water quality -- it focuses only on the impact of the paved road."

Replogle, a former Montgomery County transportation coordinator, said his national environmental advocacy group offered to help the state develop alternatives to the roadway, but the offer was rejected. A report detailing those alternatives was also ignored, he said.

Olsen said that despite its size, the impact statement fails to allay public worries.

Now, she said, "federal agencies need to tell the state to go back to the drawing board."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company