By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009
In just over a year, when the first section of the Intercounty Connector is scheduled to open, thousands of motorists will leave behind central Montgomery County's jam-packed side roads for 7.2 miles of highway.
Six lanes of pavement might sound like open-road nirvana to drivers, but the prospect of a partially open ICC has some Montgomery residents bracing for traffic mayhem. That's because the highway's first segment will end just east of Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road (Route 28), one of Montgomery's most congested intersections. Drivers there experience such lengthy delays that traffic engineers have given the intersection a "failing" grade.
For one year to 15 months -- or until the rest of the 18.8-mile ICC opens to Laurel in 2012 -- state officials estimate up to 60,000 vehicles will enter or leave the highway's eastern end daily via local roads surrounding that intersection. Maryland highway officials stressed that those vehicles won't be new to the local road network but rather diverted from other segments. They also said traffic engineers predict it will take months or perhaps years reach that 60,000-vehicle projection.
But many local residents say the area between northern Silver Spring and Rockville is already so jammed that it can't handle any additional vehicles.
"If [the intersection] is already failing and you're dumping thousands more vehicles through there on a daily basis, it certainly sounds like a catastrophe to me," said Matt Zaborsky, vice president of the Norbeck Meadows Civic Association.
Maryland Del. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery), whose district includes the area, called the opening of the ICC's first segment "a recipe for disaster."
The western end of the ICC's first segment is not as controversial because it adjoins the Interstate 270 corridor, leaving smaller local streets less affected. However, in addition to handling local traffic, the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road serves as a gateway to Olney and carries commuter traffic between the closer-in Washington suburbs and Howard County.
Maryland highway officials said they are working to reduce the potential traffic effects. In response to community concerns, the state agreed to build temporary ramps between the ICC's first section and Norbeck Road, east of Georgia. That will keep highway traffic out of the intersection, said Melinda Peters, the Maryland State Highway Administration's ICC project director. (The ICC will ultimately pass under Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road with interchanges at Georgia and Layhill Road.)
Peters said opening the first section as soon as it's completed will immediately make some local roads, such as Muncaster Mill, safer as motorists switch to the new highway and traffic levels drop. Norbeck west of Georgia also is projected to have 7 percent less traffic after the first part of the ICC opens, highway officials said.
However, north of Norbeck, Georgia Avenue's traffic volumes are projected to swell by 40 percent after the first ICC segment opens, highway officials say. Traffic is expected to increase 12 percent on Georgia south of Norbeck.
Before that occurs, Peters said, part of Norbeck east of Georgia will be widened from two lanes to four, and traffic lights will be timed to prevent backups. Georgia Avenue will get an additional through lane and another turn lane near Norbeck.
The intersection will continue to "fail," highway officials said, but the new lanes should reduce delays there by an average of 15 to 30 percent.
"While there may be a slight increase in traffic on some of those roads," Peters said, opening the first segment as soon as possible "will be beneficial to the overall road network."
Another reason to open it: money. The ICC's $2.56 billion budget does not rely on that early toll revenue to fund the rest of the construction, Peters said. However, any revenue flowing into beleaguered state coffers is "certainly an added benefit," she said.
"The fact is that if we have a road completed and it's a toll road, we should open it as soon as we can," Peters said.
The ICC's western stretch between I-370 and Georgia Avenue is expected to remain the highway's busiest even after it fully opens. That portion will gradually attract up to 71,000 vehicles daily after the entire highway opens in spring 2012, highway officials said. By 2030, that number is expected to grow to 96,000 vehicles daily.
Local lawmakers said they hear from residents in Leisure World, off Norbeck, who worry that backups will entangle ambulances between their retirement community and Montgomery General Hospital in Olney.
State Sen. Michael G. Lenett (D-Montgomery) said he is concerned any construction delays on the rest of the ICC could leave his district's local roads burdened longer than 12 to 15 months.
Lenett's prediction: "It's going to be horrible for a year and a half or more."