Opponents Want Legislature to Halt Construction

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Intercounty connector opponents are asking Maryland lawmakers to yank funding for the 18.8-mile highway or to at least halt its construction until its impact on global warming and the health of nearby residents can be studied.

Bulldozers began clearing trees for the toll highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel in November after a federal judge ruled that the state's environmental review of the six-lane road met federal requirements. Opponents are appealing that ruling but say they hope Annapolis lawmakers will step in.

Such legislation is probably their last option, legal observers say, because appeals could take several years. The first seven-mile section between Interstate 370 and Georgia Avenue, scheduled to open in 2010, could be nearly finished before the court case is resolved.

Even lawmakers backing the legislation say the measure is a long shot.

"It's definitely an uphill battle," said Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), sponsor of a bill seeking to halt construction while health effects of the road are studied. Still, Mizeur said, she will argue that the potential impact on nearby schoolchildren and the state's financial crunch require another look at the $2.4 billion project.

Several lawmakers, both for and against the highway, said they don't think their colleagues want to renew the five-decade debate over the connector. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has pledged to build it, and lawmakers would be leery of stopping or significantly delaying a major project already well underway, they said. State officials say they have spent $300 million to plan, design and buy land for the connector and have awarded $1 billion in construction contracts.

"Obviously, the farther along a project goes, the more difficult it is to stop," said Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery), a connector opponent and co-sponsor of the legislation.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), a connector supporter, said many of his colleagues think that "we're done with this." He added: "I don't think there's any desire to go back and stop it."

Connector opponents are pushing three bills. One would revoke the highway's financing plan that the General Assembly approved in 2005. Another would stop construction to study the impact that traffic emissions would have on the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The third would stop construction until the state did a more rigorous study of how emissions would affect the health of people nearby, including senior citizens living in the Leisure World retirement community and students at Drew Elementary School.

Frank O'Donnell, president of the nonprofit group Clean Air Watch, said the highway will increase driving and lead to more sprawl development.

"Obviously it's going to undercut efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions," O'Donnell said. "That's just common sense."

Greg Smith, a longtime connector opponent, said O'Malley's support for the highway contradicts the governor's calls to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

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