By Steven Ginsberg and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stood on a patch of roadside grass yesterday to announce that the intercounty connector, a suburban highway more than a half-century in the making, has gained final approval from the federal government and that construction would begin in the fall on the ground beneath his feet.
The approval means that Maryland has satisfied all environmental, economic and community requirements and that it can build the highway across Montgomery and Prince George's counties. State officials plan to finish the project by 2010.
The only remaining obstacle is a potential lawsuit by project opponents, who said they were unsure whether they would pursue legal action. State officials expressed confidence that the highway will be built -- and soon.
"It's a go," Ehrlich said to the cheers of a few dozen supporters and over the loud objections of a handful of protesters. "The folks holding signs, you've had 56 years to delay this. This is our day."
The six-lane, 18-mile tolled highway will cut through a mixture of parkland and residential communities between the Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 corridors. It will claim about 58 homes in its path. The highway's estimated cost is $2.4 billion and could rise to $3 billion with financing costs, making it the most expensive new highway project in the region and one of the costliest in the nation.
The decision is a monumental victory for the Republican governor five months before Election Day. Four years ago, he ran on the promise that construction of the controversial highway would begin before the close of his first term. Ehrlich asked President Bush for help in speeding federal approval of the connector, first raising the subject during a visit with Bush at Camp David.
"He's needed something very tangible to reference as he goes from community to community campaigning for reelection, and he's going to tout this as a major, demonstrable accomplishment," said Keith Haller of the independent polling firm Potomac Inc.
Ehrlich saw the highway as a major selling point in Montgomery and Prince George's during his first campaign for governor, and his supporters said yesterday that a photo of the governor sinking a shovel into the soil to begin the project this year will be among the most pivotal images of his reelection bid.
When he campaigned four years ago, Ehrlich joked about seeing rusted, brush-covered signs touting, "ICC Coming Soon," with the names of governors from decades gone by. Ehrlich said yesterday that "those signs are a symbol of a past era" before he tore the cover off a new sign that declared, "Intercounty Connector Starts Here."
The announcement is also a boost for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who campaigned four years ago on a pledge to build the highway and is one of two Democrats seeking the party's nomination to unseat Ehrlich. Duncan did not attend yesterday's event, held in his county on the Interstate 370 spur that links I-270 and the Shady Grove Metro station. The county executive and other elected officials were not told about the noon event until 9 a.m. yesterday, too late for him to make it, a spokesman said.
The connector is one of several transportation projects to advance this year. On May 18, local leaders dedicated the first of two spans of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Earlier, a bridge that is an important part of the Springfield interchange opened, and the last of that eight-year project's main bridges is to be completed by year's end.
Transportation officials and business leaders said yesterday's announcement was the latest sign that the Washington area is willing to confront its extensive traffic problems. "The glacier of the status quo is starting to melt," said Bob Grow of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
The announcement would have been hard to believe as recently as 1999, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) canceled an environmental study because of concerns about the highway's effect on streams, wetlands and wildlife. Opponents maintain those concerns and argue that the highway will lead to more sprawl that will beget more traffic.
Supporters say the highway is necessary to link the thriving business community that runs along I-270 to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the Port of Baltimore, both accessible by I-95. They also say it will take drivers off local roads and give them a way across the crowded northern suburbs.
The connector will "give back thousands of hours of time to our constituents, particularly in Montgomery County," Ehrlich said. "It'll make our neighborhoods safer. It'll serve transit users with express bus service."
Ehrlich and Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan delivered their remarks over the catcalls of several protesters, including Eve Burton. A state police officer, under orders from a supervisor to get Burton away from news cameras, pulled her away and forced her to the ground.
"I am a 4-H Club leader, mother of four children, and this is what you do to me?" Burton shouted as the cameras followed and surrounded her. "The governor wants to take my home!"
Burton rose and continued to join others in shouting over the remarks of state and local officials, prompting Ehrlich to plead several times for "mutual respect."
Burton is a resident of the Cashell Estates community, where about a dozen homes will be destroyed to make way for the highway. Original plans for the connector did not call for running it through the community, but the current route was proposed in 2003 to avoid parkland, state officials said.
The federal government "basically said damage of Rock Creek Park could not be mitigated," Flanagan said of the original plans. "The road might not have been buildable if we had taken that route."
Staff writers Marc Fisher, Ann E. Marimow and John Wagner contributed to this report.