Federal Agency Sued Over Environmental Study

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006

Four environmental groups and a Montgomery County couple filed lawsuits yesterday arguing that federal transportation officials approved the intercounty connector project before adequately studying the highway's effects on wildlife and public health.

The two federal lawsuits -- one filed in the District and the other in Maryland -- also allege that the federal environmental review did not meet legal requirements to consider other east-west transportation options. Building mass transit and improving local roads, among other measures, would cost less, do less environmental damage and combat traffic better than an 18-mile road cutting across Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the complaints say.

"The ICC has been steamrolled through the approval process without a thorough evaluation of smarter, more effective and, frankly, healthier alternatives," said one of the plaintiffs, John M. Balbus, director of the health program for Environmental Defense.

Balbus and other highway opponents spoke at a news conference in the back yard of a home on Briardale Road in the Derwood area of Rockville, where the six-lane highway would cut through a swath of woods between two neighborhoods. The road's right of way would take part of the yard and run within a few feet of the family's swing set and basketball hoop.

Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said he had not seen the lawsuits. However, he said, the agency does not typically comment on pending litigation.

Maryland highway officials were not named in the lawsuits, but state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said he had expected them. Still, he said, he was confident the state's study -- and federal officials' approval of it -- would withstand legal scrutiny.

"Every highway project that's ever been built in modern times has had to face a lawsuit," Flanagan said, adding that he had not seen the complaints. "This highway meets and, in fact, probably exceeds all federal and state environmental laws and regulations."

The plaintiffs said they hope for decisions in the cases by late summer. Their attorneys said they are not seeking an immediate injunction because state highway officials said no work that could cause environmental damage, such as tree cutting or filling in wetlands, would occur while the suits are pending. The suits probably will be settled or decided by a federal judge before any trial, lawyers said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) made building the highway his administration's top transportation priority, saying it would reduce congestion on dangerously crowded east-west local roads while speeding travel between the Interstate-270 corridor in Montgomery and the Interstate-95 corridor in Prince George's. Maryland officials have begun buying property in the path of the toll highway, estimated to cost $2.4 billion. The first major contract -- to design and build the westernmost section between I-270 and Georgia Avenue -- is scheduled to be awarded in March, Flanagan said.

But in U.S. District Court in Maryland, opponents will argue that federal officials didn't consider "reasonable alternatives" to a highway and didn't fully weigh such environmental effects as increased noise on parkland. The complaint listing those allegations was filed by the Audubon Naturalist Society, the Maryland Native Plant Society, and Roger Metcalf and Eve Burton, a Derwood couple who would lose their Cashell Estates home to the highway.

The other suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington by Environmental Defense and the Sierra Club, argues that the federal review did not properly analyze the road's effect on local pollution levels and the health of nearby residents and schoolchildren.

"It's terrifying for us having seen our kids in the hospital with asthma to know this road might be coming," said Connie McKenna, a highway opponent who lives near the proposed route.

Bump in the Road
Lawsuits filed against the U.S. Department of Transportation say building the 18-mile intercounty connector would harm the environment and public health.
Intercounty Connector Route
By Gene Thorp, The Washington Post - December 21, 2006
© 2006 The Washington Post Company