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Debate over the merits of Maryland's new toll road continues as the ICC opens to traffic

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011

When the first segment of a controversial new highway that will connect Montgomery and Prince George's counties opens Tuesday, Maryland will have built what was once considered impossible in Washington's congested suburbs: a six-lane, multibillion-dollar toll road across fragile streams, a stone's throw from hundreds of homes.

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The full cost of the Intercounty Connector - the exchange of woodlands for asphalt; the effects on residents along its path; debt payments that could require raising tolls throughout the state - will be analyzed for years. The immediate question is how opening the first 7.2 miles will affect traffic.

Long-term, state officials say, the roadway will provide a far speedier link between two economic growth corridors: Interstate 270, with its job centers, and Interstate 95, with its access to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

But for environmental groups who opposed the project and many residents who soon will have thousands of vehicles streaming past their bedroom windows, the ICC is a costly mistake.

Joe and Donna Simon lost one-third of their property to the ICC. "We had complete privacy here," he says. "It was completely quiet. That's all gone."

As the region's first new major highway in a generation, the ICC links D.C. suburbs where many people travel between home and work without ever heading into the District. Traffic on the first segment is projected to build to 21,500 vehicles daily over the next 12 months.

The first stretch, which ICC officials said was built within its $478 million budget, will carry traffic between I-270 in Gaithersburg and Norbeck Road, just east of Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring. It is expected to attract residents from Olney, Howard County and eastern Montgomery who commute to the job-rich I-270 corridor. While the toll road covers only a section of that commute, it will allow drivers to bypass the slowest part - winding, two-lane roads such as Muncaster Mill Road that become bumper-to-bumper during the morning and evening rush hours.

Tolls, which kick in March 7 after a two-week free trial period, will be 60 cents to $1.45 for passenger vehicles, depending on the time of day. Those prices will increase to up to $6.15 to travel the entire 18.8-mile highway after it opens to Interstate 95 in Prince George's by spring 2012. The ICC toll rates are among the highest in the United States.

While motorists won't feel the full benefits until the entire highway opens, state officials say those using the first segment will cut their morning rush-hour travel time from 23 minutes to seven. Those who don't want to pay a toll will see a reduction in traffic on nearby local roads as others increasingly opt for the ICC, state officials said.

Sam McNamee, who runs a sign manufacturing company in Gaithersburg, said the tolls "are a little too high," but he plans to use the first segment several times a week.

"I have clients in Prince George's and Howard County, and I just see this saving me a tremendous amount of time on the road," McNamee said. "If it saves me 20 minutes on a one-hour drive, then it's definitely going to be worth it."

Ray McKenzie, a Gaithersburg lawyer, said using just part of the ICC will cut his drive time to the Laurel ice rink where he coaches youth hockey three evenings a week. He also hopes it will coax potential legal clients in Howard County, Baltimore and Laurel to make the trip to his office.


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