Many Pr. George's Democrats Back Road Foes

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 8, 2007

All nine members of the Prince George's County Council, a majority of the county's delegates, several state senators and a variety of municipal leaders yesterday formally backed a lawsuit by environmental groups challenging the intercounty connector project.

The move was a strong show of opposition to the proposed highway, which would connect Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and it put members of the group, all Democrats, in conflict with Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has strongly supported the highway.

Less than two miles of the 18-mile road, stretching between the Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 corridors, are planned for Prince George's. The group argues that the project would benefit Montgomery more than Prince George's, worsening the economic disparity between the counties. They also contend that the highway would damage the environment and that it conflicts with transportation priorities of local leaders.

"We're in a time when funds are a critical need," said Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt (D-Prince George's), who signed the brief. "We have concerns that this will take funds away from other important transportation projects."

The arguments are made in a friend-of-the-court brief that was scheduled to be filed late yesterday in federal court in support of a lawsuit 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 environmentalists are suing federal and state highway agencies, arguing that studies of the road's environmental impact did not meet legal requirements to consider alternatives.

Valerie Edgar, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said she had not seen the brief. But she said the state has extensive plans to mitigate the environmental impact, and she cited a 2004 University of Maryland study that found that the road would create 6,000 jobs in Prince George's -- 40 percent of the projected total.

"This project has long had very strong supporters, as well as very strong opponents," she said. "After 50 years of debate, this project is moving forward."

Some of the politicians who signed on to the court filing have expressed distaste for the $2.4 billion toll road before. The Prince George's County Council adopted a resolution in 2003 expressing its unanimous opposition to the road and will consider a similar resolution when members return from a summer recess next week. Some of the senators and delegates sent a letter to O'Malley in March asking him to delay the road.

But the local officials said they fear they are being ignored and hope to amplify their complaints by supporting a lawsuit that could block the road's construction.

"We hope to be placed on the map, where people start thinking about Prince George's County and our needs," said Del. Joseline Pe?a-Melnyk (D-Prince George's), whose district includes the road's proposed endpoint in Laurel.

Dolores Milmoe, conservation advocate for the Audubon Naturalist Society, said the group was especially pleased to have the elected officials' support because state and federal officials have asserted in court documents that the road has bipartisan support and has been included in local planning.

The Prince George's County Council has omitted the road from its lists of top transportation priorities in recent years and has pushed instead for the so-called Purple Line, a proposed transit route linking Bethesda and New Carrollton.

"The state has made claims that everybody's on board, and it's a false claim to make," Milmoe said.

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) did not sign on to the brief. Spokesman James Keary said Johnson supports the road and thinks it will spur economic development while doing little environmental harm.

"The county executive believes the ICC will bring jobs and commerce to the county," Keary said.

A Federal Highway Administration spokesman said he could not comment on the litigation.

The case is scheduled to be heard in federal court Oct. 1.

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