Md. Connector's Fate Hinges on Court Decision
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Fifty years after the intercounty connector surfaced on local road plans, its fate will come down to one question in a Greenbelt courtroom: Did Maryland officials properly consider what effect an 18-mile highway would have on air pollution, traffic congestion and all the wetlands, forests, parks and animals it would pave over?
The answer, to be decided by a U.S. District Court judge in the month ahead, will determine whether one of the region's first major highways in a generation will be built on schedule starting this fall or sent back to the drawing board.
Tomorrow, U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. will begin hearing arguments in two lawsuits that attempt to stop the road. He will wade into a debate that has raged across Maryland for decades, and he won't have much time. The Maryland State Highway Administration had planned to break ground Oct. 16 on the westernmost stretch of the road, between Interstate 270 and Georgia Avenue, although the state has agreed to delay major work until Williams rules after a second hearing Oct. 29.
Several environmental groups allege in the case that the U.S. Transportation Department and Army Corps of Engineers violated federal law by approving a state study that they believe miscalculated the highway's environmental impact.
The six-lane toll highway would run north of the Capital Beltway between Gaithersburg in Montgomery and Laurel in Prince George's County.
"For folks who follow transportation, this is an important case," said Margaret Strand, a Washington lawyer who has represented other state governments in similar lawsuits. "We're not the only city that has an out-of-date suburban transportation system."
Although the case will probably be decided on written motions and oral arguments, rather than a trial, the judge will have plenty to consider: The state's environmental impact study and supporting documents total 300,000 pages, contained on CDs.
The judge will not decide whether the $2.4 billion intercounty connector is a good idea, legal observers said.
Rather, he will determine whether the federal government followed the National Environmental Policy Act when it approved the highway last year. That law spells out how governments must weigh a project's effects on wilderness, wildlife and other aspects of the environment when deciding whether to build it.
The Maryland State Highway Administration, which conducted the study, was not named in the lawsuits. However, Maryland transportation officials, who had anticipated a court battle, joined the case as a defendant to protect their project, state officials said.
Problems with the highway's environmental impact have dogged the project for years. Former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening (D) called the project an "environmental disaster" before shelving a previous study in 1999.
When Glendening's successor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), revived the highway study in 2003, his administration added $370 million in design changes and other efforts to limit the damage. Those changes included building bridges over sensitive areas and culverts to help deer and other animals cross safely. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has said he plans to build the highway.