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For Ehrlich, Connector Highway Issue Is Promising but Low-Risk

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. staged a third groundbreaking yesterday for the six-lane, 18-mile toll highway that will cut across Montgomery and Prince George's counties to link the Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 corridors.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. staged a third groundbreaking yesterday for the six-lane, 18-mile toll highway that will cut across Montgomery and Prince George's counties to link the Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 corridors. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Matthew Mosk and Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 13, 2006

Standing with shovel in hand, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appeared in Aspen Hill yesterday for his third made-for-TV event this year aimed at promoting the coming construction of the intercounty connector, which he considers a crowning achievement of his tenure in office.

Back in May, Ehrlich (R) held a heavily publicized first groundbreaking ceremony for the soon-to-be-built, six-lane, 18-mile toll highway that will cut across Montgomery and Prince George's counties to link the Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 corridors. A second event marked the dedication of a soccer field that is connected to the project.

The decision to hold a third event barely three weeks before he faces voters for a reelection bid underscores how he views delivery of a highway project that has been five decades in the making.

"This is one of the major commitments I made," he said after shoveling dirt a second time, so every camera could capture the moment. "If we didn't meet it, you would have heard about it."

Ehrlich's opponent, Democrat Martin O'Malley, had another take on the day's event.

"When you only have one transportation initiative," O'Malley said, "I guess you've got to run it up the flagpole as often as you can."

Ehrlich, along with other elected officials such as Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), took a calculated risk four years ago by tying his political fortunes to a public works initiative that has had well-organized opposition and a star-crossed history.

Public support for the project in the Washington suburbs hasn't always been strong but grew to a fairly steady 60 percent after Duncan's aggressive End Gridlock campaign in 2002. That year, Ehrlich pledged he would break ground by 2006, seeking to capitalize on the widespread angst over traffic and carve out a potential source of votes in a region dominated by Democrats.

This year, transportation finishes sixth on the list of voter concerns statewide but is a leading issue for Montgomery residents, a Washington Post poll found. And Ehrlich is employing largely the same strategy as Duncan to appeal to voters in the Washington suburbs.

When the governor moved his first campaign commercial from Baltimore TV stations into the Washington media market two months ago, he made only one adjustment: adding mention of his progress on the highway.

Ehrlich is not about to concede that the highway is his only transportation initiative. His office says there have been 120 projects during his term. And, with the election looming, his transportation secretary has scheduled tours of two other major undertakings proposed for Montgomery: a rapid-bus line alongside I-270 and the Purple Line transit link between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

The gubernatorial candidates, both from the Baltimore area, have offered little in the way of a detailed proposal for the Washington region's traffic woes.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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