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The Rough Road: Maryland's Intercounty Connector highway is in the hands of Melinda Peters

By Katherine Shaver
Sunday, July 18, 2010; W18

Melinda Peters's three-inch heels tap in frustration beneath the conference table. It is December, and the rain hasn't let up for months. Construction on the largest -- and most controversial -- highway built in the Washington region since Interstate 66 has turned into a muddy mess and is weeks behind schedule. A large digital clock hangs on the wall behind Peters's head. Its glowing red numbers tick down to the day in late 2011 when the state of Maryland plans to open the 18.8-mile Intercounty Connector highway to thousands of vehicles traveling between Montgomery and Prince George's counties: "Days: 708. Hours: 02. Minutes: 40."

One of the project's consultants reports the latest problem: Workers haven't had enough consecutive dry days to lay asphalt. That means a new bridge that will carry Georgia Avenue over the ICC in Silver Spring remains out of commission. Without pavement to connect it to the existing road, the bridge is useless. Without the bridge, traffic can't be rerouted to keep work moving. Lane closure restrictions during rush hours -- and, worse yet, more rain -- would cause even further delays.

Suddenly, Peters has an idea: Avoid prolonged pain. Rip the Band-Aid off quickly.

"What would it take to do a full closure?" she asks. "How long would it take to get [the paving] done overnight with a detour?"

The other 15 people at the long conference table -- all of them men -- stare back. A long, silent moment passes before someone speaks up, "Oh, man, talk about thinking outside the box."

"I'm talking about the middle of the night with a lot of notification," Peters says. "Would people like to be inconvenienced overnight for one night or for six weeks?... I think we're all tired of staring at a bridge we can't get traffic on."

"Okay," says the consultant, Dennis McMahon. "We'll look at that way-outside-the-box stuff."

***

Much about Peters, in fact, is atypical. The job of project director in highway construction -- a career-defining role -- typically goes to men in their 50s and 60s with 30-plus years of experience. Peters is 37. When she took on the job at the Maryland State Highway Administration in 2006, she was 11 years out of Virginia Tech's engineering school and had two young children. She is one of the youngest women in the United States to manage the design and construction of a "major project," a term reserved for those that are particularly large and complex, with budgets topping $500 million, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Plans for the ICC roiled Maryland politics for 50 years, spawning two federal lawsuits and sparking decades of protest before turning an enormous swath of the Maryland suburbs into a dirt pit. Business leaders and supporters deemed the six-lane highway critical to speeding travel between the state's Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 business corridors, and reducing congestion on east-west roads outside the Capital Beltway. Environmental groups argued that it would promote more sprawl (and, in turn, more traffic and air pollution) while destroying the wetlands, woods and streams in its path.

The debate effectively ended in late 2007, when a federal judge rejected the environmental groups' lawsuits, clearing the way for construction of the $2.56 billion highway -- the most expensive Maryland has ever built.

Mike Baker, the ICC's environmental construction manager, who also worked on the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge reconstruction, is blunt about the pressure that Peters -- and her 25-person management team -- are under.

"It'll either make or break you," Baker says of leading a project this large and complex. "You'll either be the hero, or it will ruin your career."

***

Peters and her team must thread the ICC through long-established neighborhoods between Gaithersburg and Laurel. The highway will run just beyond the back decks of many homes whose residents say they never knew their bucolic view belonged to a highway right-of-way. In some neighborhoods, the construction is so close that if the homeowners were to watch Monday night football on a large-screen TV with the shades up, someone atop a bulldozer could follow the game.

The state used eminent domain law to buy 40 homes, three businesses and parts of 278 private and publicly owned parcels to clear the road's path. During three years of planning, Peters and other highway officials visited communities along the 18.8-mile alignment. Emotions ran so high that some residents shouted "Liars!" and less printable insults at Peters and the others. In one case, Peters says, she notified police after a homeowner, who'd been told his yard would be surveyed in preparation for the state's purchase, wrote her to say he had a knife.

Having to explain to people why they would lose their homes was one of the hardest parts of her job, Peters says. She recalls sitting in the kitchen of Myrlene and John Matala's Derwood home after the highway's final route had been chosen and watching the distraught woman break into tears.

"It was horrible," Peters remembers. "They'd been in their home 30 years, and both were retired and were watching their grandkids; they had a playground and a pool and a beautiful tree in their front yard. We worked with her for months and told her if she really wanted to stay in their home, we'd work on a solution, but we had to [tell] her that she'd have a highway five feet from her garage and live in the middle of a construction zone for three years."

Myrlene Matala says she and her husband decided to sell their house, which has since been demolished, to the state and move to Howard County. Almost three years later, her voice chokes with emotion when she tells of having to leave the home where they had raised three children and planned to remain through their golden years.

Peters "tried to be as gentle and kind as she could be," Matala, 67, says, "but it was just a bad situation." Where their home once stood, "it's just dirt now."

Peters didn't get involved in the debate over whether the ICC should be built. It is simply her job to help get it done, she says. But driving between the project offices in Beltsville and Rockville, she says, she sees firsthand that motorists need a more reliable alternative to the Capital Beltway and jammed local roads. The state included $370 million worth of environmental projects in the ICC's budget to offset some of the ecological damage.

"Yes, we are taking homes, and, yes, we are taking trees," she says. "But, in the end, we're providing a facility that's very much needed, and our goal is to do it in a way that protects the environment and property as much as possible."

Peters lives northwest of Baltimore but says that having grown up in Prince George's and having family in Montgomery gives her an appreciation for how much the ICC has already altered the local landscape. During an October visit to the construction site, Peters tours Longmead Crossing, a large subdivision in Silver Spring that the highway will bisect. She points to an enormous ribbon of reddish brown mud seen from hundreds of kitchen windows and back yards.

"That was 300 yards of woods," Peters says. "Now, it's gone."

***

Peters's job is to keep construction on schedule and on budget by ensuring that everyone -- the federal, state and county environmental agencies, community groups, politicians, consultants and national contracting firms doing the design and construction -- stays informed and involved. She must make sure the problem of the day gets solved, whether it's rescuing steel girders from a broken-down truck or fixing the holes that groundhogs chew through the mesh construction fence.

She does it with a mix of enthusiasm--she greets good news with a fist-in-the-air "Woo-hoo!"--and resolve, cutting off lengthy discussions among her management team with, "What's the bottom line here?" She talks, walks and thinks quickly, her personal pace matching that of a project that will be designed and built in four years -- half the typical time for a road this size.

Off the job, she doesn't let up. She spends much of her free time training for an Ironman triathlon later this month in New York.

"She's a super go-getter, so energetic. You get tired watching her sometimes," says Ken Briggs, Peters's former boss at the Maryland State Highway Administration, who became her deputy on the ICC.

Peters starts most days at 4:30 a.m. with an hour or two of triathlon training. She arrives at her Beltsville office as early as 7 a.m. With an early start, she says, she usually can leave by 4:30 p.m., BlackBerry in hand, to get her older son to a lacrosse match or soccer practice.

Colleagues say they routinely receive e-mails from her at midnight and again at 5 a.m. the next day. "You can get a lot of things done between nine and 12 o'clock at night," Peters explains, laughing.

"I don't know how she does it, and I live with her," says her husband, Phil J. Peters, 43. "I don't know how she physically does what she does -- just the [ICC] project alone, then two kids, a mother-in-law, a husband, a puppy, a cat, sports, having friends over. It's so overwhelming, but it's a controlled chaos we live in."

***

John Heagy says his sister, the middle of three children, wasn't the little girl who liked to play with dump trucks. She spent much of her early years swimming competitively, working after-school jobs and coordinating activities among a wide group of friends.

"I didn't see her as someone who would build stuff, but you could tell she'd lead and manage something," says Heagy, who manages apartment and condominium construction projects for Greenbelt-based Bozzuto Construction Co.

Growing up in Lanham, Heagy says, his sister picked up their parents' work ethic. Their father, Jack Heagy, 68, worked days as a civilian for the Department of Defense and evenings and weekends at a sporting goods store while coaching lacrosse at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville. Their mother, Elizabeth, 67, stayed home when their children were young and then worked as a bookkeeper while organizing church and family events.

Peters says her parents taught her two things: Family comes first, and hard work matters. "My father was very driven," Peters says. "He has a very Type-A personality, and I do, as well. I learned if you're going to do something, do it right. That was important to him."

At Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, she excelled in the science and technology magnet program. When it came to college, she says, "engineering seemed to fit." The University of Maryland accepted Peters to its engineering school. She was also admitted to Virginia Tech but not to its engineering program. She chose Tech. When enough students dropped out of engineering after the first semester, Peters got in.

"That's why she went to Virginia Tech -- to prove them wrong," Phil Peters says. "You don't say no to Melinda. ... It will make her want to do it that much more."

Her husband noticed her drive when they met in 1993 during the Baltimore-Washington Parkway's repaving. His job was to test the concrete his company laid down before the asphalt. Her job, as a 20-year-old federal intern, was to inspect his work.

"I would test it, and she'd make me test it more and more and more," Phil Peters recalls with a laugh. (He oversees paving projects for Baltimore-based P. Flanigan & Sons, which has agreed to refrain from bidding on ICC work.)

At the Maryland State Highway Administration, Peters's big break came in 2003, when she became its design division's liaison to the state's ICC planning team. Neil J. Pedersen, Maryland's highway administrator and Peters's boss, says Peters had caught his eye when she oversaw construction of three interchanges on Route 29 in eastern Montgomery. Peters handled contentious community meetings and managed a team of consultants to build ramps and bridges adjacent to homes, businesses and a school -- all while keeping traffic moving on one of Maryland's busiest commuter routes.

Still, when Pedersen tapped her in 2006 to manage the ICC construction, Peters says, she was wary. Her sons were 4 and 7 years old. The job would entail 14-hour work days and a five-year commitment.

In the end, however, the complex project enticed her. "I was pitching for it," Peters says. "I'm an engineer, but what I really like is the ability to work toward a goal and solutions that people will benefit from. This really was the biggest challenge you could come up with at that time."

***

One October morning, Peters sets out on a site visit with Rob Shreeve, the SHA's environmental manager. Her white hard hat compresses her layered brown bob.

They pull into the construction site near Interstate 95, as Shreeve's Ford Explorer slides through the reddish brown muck left by two days of rain, drawing an "Ugh! It's a mess!" from Peters in the front passenger seat. She quickly begins to assess the progress.

"Will that go down before the rain we're going to get Saturday?" she asks Shreeve, pointing to the level of a storm water retention pond.

"Yeah, it'll go down in 24 hours," he answers.

She asks how erosion control efforts are going. "That's good -- I see grass," she says, pointing to a nearby hillside of fresh dirt covered in green fuzz.

Pulling up alongside northbound I-95, Peters gets out to size up a half-built ICC bridge jutting over the interstate. "This is cool," she says quietly, almost to herself, as she gazes upon the bridge's steel beams.

As they continue west along the ICC route, Peters sounds like an excited kid on a school field trip. "You can see our pretty walls!" she exclaims, peering out the SUV window at new concrete barriers designed to shield a Silver Spring neighborhood from much of the ICC's noise. In the distance, huge pieces of construction equipment rumble about the mud. "Look at that big hole!" she cheers. "Unbelievable!"

Just off Muncaster Mill Road, she and Shreeve arrive at the skeletal beginnings of an arched 60-foot bridge that will span Rock Creek Park. Peters hops from the SUV and points out how the designers set the arch's foundations into the sides of the stream valley, avoiding the stream itself.

"This was a big, big deal," Peters says. She pauses a few moments to admire the bridge's soaring height, which will leave ICC motorists seeing treetops while hikers and horseback riders traverse the wooded stream valley below. "When it's done, you'll be able to feel like you're in the park without the road encroaching upon you," she says. "It will be a beautiful bridge to look at."

***

Several times each week, Peters and her team of state employees and consultants meet with the contractors. Out of 15 or so people at the table, there are typically one or two other women.

Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, who became Maryland's first female transportation secretary last year, says Peters's success stems from her smarts and detailed command of the technically challenging project. Even so, Swaim-Staley says, for women coming behind Peters, "I don't think you can underestimate the importance of having a female engineer overseeing one of the most significant projects we've done in the state of Maryland."

Peters says she initially felt insecure about her age, wondering whether those working for her who had a decade or two more experience would take her seriously. But she says she never focuses on being a woman.

"I don't come into meetings and think, 'I'm the only woman at this table.' I don't see the world that way," she says. "I think it's important to treat everyone with respect and deal with them honestly. I assume people are treating me in the same way."

Her colleagues say they notice few differences between Peters and male bosses beyond what one termed her "maternal thing," such as baking birthday cakes and pies for her staff and organizing monthly potluck lunches.

Robert Farley, a consultant who oversees construction on the ICC's eastern end, says Peters is the first woman he's worked for in 25 years of building large projects around the country.

"Initially, you see a project director 30-some years old, and you're surprised, and it's somewhat unusual it's a woman. But it doesn't take very long until it's like that doesn't exist," Farley says. "She's just the project director. She definitely knows what she's doing, and everyone looks to her for direction."

Even so, most of her colleagues -- men and women -- acknowledge that it took Peters longer than a man to earn widespread respect. Her ideas are still sometimes challenged more than a male boss's would be, some say. She had to quickly prove that she knew the project inside and out in a way that a man in charge usually wouldn't.

"I think some older engineers reserved judgment until they could see if she'd pull her weight," says Betsy Weinkam, an Annapolis-based environmental consultant on the ICC. "Some of these guys just didn't have to deal with women before."

***

Peters's ability to appease an often angry public -- or at least to make people feel heard -- is at the root of her success, colleagues say. At community meetings, she is polished and well-spoken, translating technical engineering plans into plain English.

On the phone in her office, Peters speaks with a Colesville resident worried that traffic exiting the highway will make it nearly impossible to get out of his neighborhood without a stoplight.

"I absolutely hear your concerns," she says. "I've been out there, and I've looked at the intersection." She says she'll put him in touch with traffic engineers who determined that the intersection doesn't meet state requirements for a signal. The man likely would not get his stoplight, Peters says later, but he should understand why.

Public officials representing neighborhoods that fought the ICC say Peters has remained cordial and returns their e-mails promptly. State Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-Prince George's) marvels at how she responded to complaints about the highway slicing through the 14th hole of a Beltsville golf course. After seeing the problem -- the developer had built part of the golf course in the state's right-of-way -- Peters returned with new designs that spared the hole. "No one likes a highway going through their golf course," Rosapepe says, "but she basically solved the problem."

Not everyone is impressed. Patsy Koehler, president of the Cross Creek Club Homeowners Association, says Peters and her staff never informed Koehler's neighborhood of 657 homes that the ICC would have a partial interchange at nearby Briggs Chaney Road. She says Peters was "brusque and unaccommodating" when she told residents that the designs were too far along to make major changes. The community "had to fight for sound barriers."

Peters says that moving the highway farther from Cross Creek would have put it too close to another neighborhood and affected more parkland, wetlands and a stream. Plans have noted ICC access at Briggs Chaney since 1997, Peters says.

"The developer did have maps showing the ICC" ramps nearby, Peters says. "How much he communicated that to people picking their [home] sites and buying their homes, I don't know."

***

The ICC's first 7.2-mile section is scheduled to open by the end of the year. Whether that happens, Peters says, will depend on how much rain the area gets this summer and fall.

The Georgia Avenue bridge over the ICC is long since paved. Peters's overnight detour proved unnecessary. The bridge opened several months behind schedule, she says, but once the rains let up, the paving went more quickly than anticipated.

Still, other challenges await. The latest: finding light fixtures for a new tunnel that are strong enough to withstand the power-washing required to keep the tunnels clean.

"We'll solve the problem," Peters says. "Every problem that comes up has a solution. It's just a matter of keeping everyone focused and working together."

Katherine Shaver covers transportation and development for The Post. She can be reached at shaverk@washpost.com.

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