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First stretch of Intercounty Connector toll road in Maryland to open Feb. 22

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; B04

The first segment of the long-awaited, much-debated Intercounty Connector will open Feb. 22, Maryland officials said Monday.

The 7.2-mile portion of the $2.56 billion toll road, delayed for years by objections and lawsuits, will connect Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg and Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring.

"We are opening for business at 6 a.m. . . . unless there's a horrific weather event," said Harold M. Bartlett, deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Transportation. "People probably will still see us doing some work on signage and drainage, but it's all very minor."

ICC officials had hoped to open the 18.8-mile toll road, which will be known as Route 200, in December, but rain and cold weather set back completion dates.

The six-lane highway's origins can be traced to the mid-20th century, when the Capital Beltway was being completed and planners talked of a second outer ring of superhighway around Washington. When it was first envisioned, planners thought most of it would be finished by 1970. And 26 years ago, the total cost of the project was pegged at $216 million.

When completed, Route 200 will connect the I-270 corridor in Montgomery County with Interstate 95 in Laurel, in northwestern Prince George's County. The remaining two segments in the highway's middle and eastern sections are to open late this year or early next year.

The ICC will use variable-priced tolling, a relatively novel concept that is expected to become common on new highways, high-occupancy toll lanes, and some existing highways as cash-strapped governments seek new revenue.

"If you don't have an E-ZPass, you should get one," Bartlett said.

Tolls will not go into effect until March 6.

"The test-drive period will give motorists an opportunity to become familiar with the highway's all-electronic tolling and variable pricing while allowing us to test the tolling equipment under actual traffic conditions," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said in announcing the opening plan.

There will be no toll booths. Drivers who don't have the electronic E-ZPass devices will be "video-tolled." A camera will record their license plate number, and their toll charge will arrive in the mail with a $3 service fee. To avoid paying the added charge, drivers can buy E-ZPasses at service centers, including locations in Beltsville and Gaithersburg.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said the $3 surcharge would be waived for the first 30 days.

"Our goal is to give people time to try the road, get their E-ZPass and become accustomed to the ICC tolling system," she said.

A three-tiered tolling system will be used for the initial stretch opening this month. During two peak periods - 6 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. - it will cost $1.45 for two-axle vehicles to travel the 7.2 miles. From 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., it will cost 60 cents. At all other times, the toll will be $1.15.

Signs posted at entrances to the highway will alert drivers to the tolling period in effect.

When it's fully open, the highway is projected to carry about 43,000 vehicles a day.

Despite its grandeur in size, technology and expense, the highway is little more than half as long as the one promised in 1958. That one was to stretch in a 32-mile arc through Maryland suburbia, from just north of Potomac to Bowie.

The right of way for much of the highway that will open this year was bought before the surrounding area was developed, so construction didn't require razing many homes or other structures, as might have been the case in the densely settled suburbs.

But the project drew strong objections from environmentalists and residents who feared it would pollute the air and streams and eventually invite more congestion by encouraging development.

The Maryland State Highway Administration is carrying out a 2008 settlement negotiated with the Environmental Defense Fund over air quality.

The state is spending $1 million to install exhaust filters on 70 diesel school buses, along with $1 million to collect three years of data from an air-quality monitor near the Beltway and Route 214 in Prince George's. The results could determine how much people near highways are exposed to unhealthy particles and droplets of chemicals in vehicle emissions.

Staff writer Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.

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