By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 8:52 PM
Prediction: Opening the first phase of Maryland's Intercounty Connector this week will do little if anything to stifle the decades-long debates about the impact of this new highway. But it will start to have an impact on commuters who endure a congested east-west journey across the suburbs north of the District. This article focuses on those drivers, addressing some of the basic questions they are asking as this road becomes a reality.What is the Intercounty Connector?
The six-lane, tolled highway, talked about for half a century, will arc across about 19 miles of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Construction is underway along most of the route, but portions on the east end have been delayed. The road will also be known as MD 200.What's opening this week?
About seven miles on the western side are scheduled to open at 6 a.m. Tuesday, weather permitting. Initially, the Shady Grove side will connect with the Shady Grove Metro station and I-370/270. On the other end, near Olney, ramps will link with Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road (MD 28). About a year from now, the highway should be open as far east as I-95.What does it look like?
It looks like a six-lane highway. Maryland has sunk a small fortune into limiting the impact of the connector on the landscape, wildlife and neighborhoods surrounding it. Project manager Melinda Peters and her team have done an impressive job in executing that plan. But motorists moving at 55 mph won't recognize most of what they accomplished. For example, the emblem of the ICC project is the majestic set of arches supporting the highway bridge soaring above Rock Creek Park. That's what the squirrels will see. Drivers will see a concrete deck and guardrails.Nothing noteworthy?
Drivers who don't take their eyes off the road probably will complain that in some areas the final coat of asphalt has yet to be applied and lane markings are temporary. Those who look up will see the first highway-speed electronic toll gantry in the D.C. region. Also, drivers usually will be going under - rather than over - the crossroads, a design that reduces the highway's sound and visual impact. The longest underpass is impressive for the white tiling and lighting intended to enhance visibility for drivers.Why ramps at Norbeck Road?
The entrance and exit at Norbeck Road, just east of Georgia Avenue, is a temporary accommodation. Planners hope it will help control the traffic flow at what is essentially an artificial eastern terminus for the highway. Allowing traffic to exit and enter at Norbeck should take some of the pressure off the Georgia Avenue interchange. Once the rest of the highway opens, the Norbeck ramps will be closed.What's the pattern at Norbeck?
Westbound traffic on Norbeck will be able to make a right turn onto a ramp leading down to the Intercounty Connector. Eastbound traffic on Norbeck will be barred from making a left into the connector's entrance. Eastbound traffic on the connector will be able to turn left or right at a new traffic signal on Norbeck Road.What's the pattern at Georgia Avenue?
The Georgia Avenue interchange will be partially opened this week. Southbound traffic on Georgia will be able to enter the highway heading west. Northbound traffic on Georgia will be able to turn left onto the westbound connector.
From the eastbound connector, traffic will find a ramp to Georgia Avenue heading south, then another ramp to Georgia Avenue heading north. Initially, these will be the only possible movements at the interchange.How do I pay the toll?
There are no tollbooths. Drivers will not be able to pay cash. The tolls will be collected electronically as vehicles pass under brown gantries that span the highway. Devices on the gantries will communicate with the E-ZPass transponders on vehicles and assess the toll. For vehicles without E-ZPass devices, cameras on the gantries will take photos of the license plates and the vehicle owners will be sent a bill.Should I get an E-ZPass?
If you think you're going to be a regular user of the connector, even if not an everyday user, you'll really want to have an E-ZPass. When the toll system is fully functional, vehicle owners who don't have E-ZPass devices will be assessed a $3 service charge on top of the toll.Does tolling start this week?
No, there's a special introductory offer. Maryland wants you to come on over and take a test drive for free. Drivers will start paying tolls March 7. Until midnight April 5, the $3 service charge will be waived for the drivers without E-ZPasses.What do I do at the gantry?
Don't fear the gantry. Just keep driving. All three lanes are the same. The tolls are collected at highway speed, and the ICC speed limit is 55 mph.What are the tolls?
Beginning March 7, passenger vehicles and light trucks will pay $1.45 during peak hours (6 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays), $1.15 off-peak (5 to 6 a.m., 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 to 11 p.m. weekdays, and 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekends) and 60 cents overnight (11 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily).Is this like the HOT lanes?
No. Although the high-occupancy toll lanes being built on the western side of the Capital Beltway in Virginia also will collect tolls electronically at highway speed, the amount will vary depending on the current level of congestion. Also, carpoolers who meet the high-occupancy vehicle requirement will travel for free. There is no carpool provision for ICC travelers.How about buses?
On March 1, the Maryland Transit Administration will add two new commuter bus routes to take advantage of the connector's first segment. It plans to add three more when the rest is done. Here's the plan for the first two: Route 201 will operate seven days a week, with 14 daily round trips between Gaithersburg and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. Route 202 will operate weekdays, with three morning trips, three afternoon trips and one midday trip between Gaithersburg and the National Security Agency and Fort Meade. The MTA says both trips should take about 75 minutes. See more details on the MTA Web site at www.mtaiccbus.com.Will the ICC save me time?
North of the Capital Beltway in Montgomery, commuters move along congested east-west roads, using some north-south arteries as links along the way. The part of the connector opening this week should simplify and speed up a portion of these trips. Among the commuter routes in the vicinity of the opening part are Norbeck Road, Muncaster Mill Road, Bel Pre Road, Shady Grove Road and Gude Drive.
In a brochure prepared for the highway's opening, the ICC management office estimates that a driver using the connector during the morning rush would save 16 minutes on a trip between Gaithersburg and Leisure World, which would be significant. But few morning commuters are bound for Leisure World. Most will get off the connector at Georgia Avenue or Norbeck Road and rejoin heavy traffic to their destinations.