As State Praises the Green Amid the ICC's Blacktop, Skeptics Still See Red

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

After decades of controversy over an Intercounty Connector's environmental impacts, Maryland roads officials are billing it as "one of America's greenest highways."

At an open house Saturday, officials said the highway will filter dirty rain water before it rushes from asphalt into streams and help deer and other animals safely cross beneath six lanes of traffic via specially designed culverts.

"We realize we can't completely alleviate all the concerns, but we want people to understand we take this very seriously," said project spokeswoman Fran Counihan as about 45 people chatted with ICC employees at the new National Capital Trolley Museum, which is yet to open. The state paid $5.63 million to move and rebuild the museum on Bonifant Road because it was in the highway's path.

With maps and posters, state officials spent three hours yesterday talking up efforts to reduce and repair damage to wetlands, woodlands, wildlife and air quality as the 18.8-mile highway is built between Gaithersburg and Laurel.

But Saturday's audience was full of skeptical residents and environmental activists.

"It's an environmental disaster," said Arnie Gordon, president of the Norbeck Meadows Civic Association, which includes residents 100 feet from the ICC route.

The environmental effects of the east-west highway have been the major sticking point during 50 years of community debate, political wrangling and legal challenges. When Maryland officials won a federal lawsuit that fought the project on environmental grounds in 2007, allowing construction to start, they highlighted $370 million worth of construction designs and restoration work as proof of their environmental commitment.

The $2.56 billion highway's first seven-mile section, between Interstate 370 and Georgia Avenue, is halfway complete and scheduled to open late next year. Work is underway on the rest of the road, which is scheduled to open by early 2012. Public hearings on a toll schedule, which could be announced by Sept. 23, are set for this fall.

Mike Baker, the project's environmental construction manager, said cooling and filtering rain water after it runs off the highway is a "huge focal point" of the project.

A summer thunderstorm can send 85-degree water full of oil and road debris into streams where fish, bugs and other wildlife survive in water temperatures of 68 to 72 degrees, he said. Building the usual roadside storm water runoff ponds would have required taking more parkland, Baker said. Instead, the project includes an underground filtration and cooling system in its particularly ecologically sensitive areas. He said it is one of the most extensive such systems tried on a United States highway.

Mark and Ondine Doore, whose Colesville home is just south of the ICC route, said they questioned why it will have several "S" curves in an area near Redland and Muncaster Mill roads. State officials have said that alignment avoided more damage to nearby Rock Creek, but Mark Doore said the curves created a longer route that will require vehicles to use more gas and make diesel trucks louder and more polluting as they slow down and speed up.

He also questioned the state's decision to run the highway through the Cashell Estates neighborhood in Derwood, where homes have been demolished.

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