Democrats Clash Over Road Project

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, at lectern, addresses the Greater Washington Board of Trade in Bethesda as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, left, listens.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, at lectern, addresses the Greater Washington Board of Trade in Bethesda as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, left, listens. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan yesterday questioned Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's commitment to building the intercounty connector, a top transportation priority for many suburban business leaders and residents.

During a candidates forum featuring the two Democrats running for governor, O'Malley said, "We need to move forward on the ICC," a six-lane, 18-mile highway that will connect Interstates 270 and 95. But he expressed concerns about plans for tolls on the road.

Duncan, however, pointed to testimony O'Malley gave in 2003 against a financing plan for the highway.

"What good is it to say you support the ICC and then testify against the financing plan to get it done?" Duncan asked the nearly 100 members of the Greater Washington Board of Trade meeting in Bethesda. "That's not leadership. That's politics as usual."

"I'm committed to the ICC," O'Malley told the group. "I have been for the last six, seven years that we've all been talking about it. I did not anticipate five, six, seven years ago maybe anymore than any of you did that, when it was built, it would be all tolls, all the time."

The road project, a priority for Duncan and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), gained final approval from the federal government just last month but could still be delayed by lawsuits.

During a 2003 appearance before a task force on state transportation needs, O'Malley said the road was a "great project," according to media accounts. He also voiced concerns that the financing plan relied too heavily on bonds backed by future federal transportation aid, sapping available money for other projects. He suggested that two major rail projects in the Baltimore region were equally important.

The project's current 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.

O'Malley aides accused Duncan of misrepresenting O'Malley's position to create a wedge on an issue on where none exists.

"I'm not surprised by anything the county executive would do to attack me," O'Malley told reporters after the event. "That's kind of been his M.O. for the last year."

Richard N. Parsons, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said O'Malley had previously offered private assurances of his support for the connector, which he took "at face value." But Parsons, a Duncan ally who was in the audience yesterday, said he was surprised to hear O'Malley voice qualms about the highway's reliance on tolls.

"When I hear public comments like that, I have to say it raises a level of concern . . . that we don't get fooled again," Parsons said of the project, which has been marked by fits and starts over the past half-century. "Toll highways are nothing new. . . . There literally is no other option at this point."

In an interview, O'Malley said that if Maryland is in a position to invest more in transportation in coming years, "I would think we would want to make the ICC more open to usage by people of all incomes."

The candidates, who addressed the group separately, both voiced support for the long-debated Purple Line -- a light-rail link between Bethesda and New Carrollton -- that is also a priority for the group.

Duncan offered his backing for a proposed alignment inside the Capital Beltway that would include aboveground and underground segments. O'Malley offered more general support for the rail line in his remarks. Questioned later by reporters, O'Malley said he was referring to the same "cut and cover" concept, which has been advanced by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Duncan said after the event that O'Malley did not have a good grasp of the specifics of transportation issues facing the Washington area.

That view was bolstered by an exchange with the moderator in which O'Malley was asked: "If you had to imagine two or three initiatives in the greater Washington area that you would support on transportation, what would they be?"

"I think it's premature to say that," O'Malley replied.

Duncan raised eyebrows at one point during the forum, claiming, "I'm the guy who coined the phrase 'Purple Line.' " Asked for evidence of that, aides said last night that Duncan had misspoken.

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