Md.'s Intercounty Connector gets ribbon-cutting as opening is delayed for snow

New and long-time neighborhood residents in Gaithersburg learn to live with the coming of the Intercounty Connector (ICC). The toll road is scheduled to open on Wednesday, February 23.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011; 7:37 PM

Given that officials once thought the Intercounty Connector would open by 1970, the fact that they finally cut the ribbon on Monday and then postponed the opening until Wednesday seemed very much in keeping with the story line.

Delays, this one because of a looming snowstorm, are woven through the history of the highway that will provide a northern link between the two Maryland counties that are wrapped around Washington.

After more than 50 years of waiting, state highway officials figured they could delay by one day opening the first 7.2-mile stretch of the roadway until the storm, which could result in sleet, freezing rain and 4 to 8 inches of snow, has passed.

But so many politicians had been rounded up to officially cut the ribbon on Monday that they broke out a Gulliverian pair of scissors to slice through it.

"This was started before many of us here today were born," said Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), 49, overlooking a sea of umbrellas as he spoke from a stage in the middle of the westbound lanes.

The rain that spit down briefly Monday morning was forecast to resume later in the day before turning to sleet and then snow after nightfall, with temperatures dropping into the 20s. If the already infamous Jan. 26 snowfall was the perfect storm to create havoc - descending in force just as early rush-hour traffic headed home - the storm brewing Monday seem perfectly timed to be much less of a headache.

With roads pre-treated and far fewer cars on the road, plows and salt trucks can work through the night to keep up with what falls.

"If you have a choice not to travel tonight, please don't," said Neil J. Pedersen, head of Maryland's State Highway Administration. "Our crews will work throughout the night, but depending on when it stops snowing, all routes may not be completely cleared by morning rush hour."

His crews will have even more time to clear the Intercounty Connector, because the six-lane toll road will officially open to traffic at 6 a.m. Wednesday, a day later than had been planned.

With a list of dignitaries so long that it took five minutes to read everyone's name, and with a handful of protesters holding banners and heckling from the wings, the first phase of what will grow to an 18.8-mile, $2.56 billion roadway was christened.

The politicians acknowledged the challenges they faced from environmentalists and home owners, even as they accepted credit for persevering despite them.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) quoted the Roman philosopher Seneca: "It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness."

Both he and Brown pointedly underscored their support for mass transit and livable community concepts favored by those who fought the highway project. So did Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who reiterated his call for an increase in the gasoline tax to "make sure we get these projects built."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who rolled up to the podium in a new electric-powered Chevrolet Volt driven by O'Malley, is a proponent of alternative travel ranging from bicycles to high-speed rail. But he likened construction of highways to the push to build the interstate system in the 1950s.

"We owe that to the next generation for what the last generation did for us," LaHood said.

Jake Plante, who lives about a mile from the new highway in Colesville, held one end of a banner that said: "Welcome to the George W. Bush-Martin J. O'Malley Memorial Boondoggle."

"I'm concerned about the environmental impact, the impact on my community and what it will do to contribute to more sprawl," Plante said. "I'm here because of [environmentalist] Rachel Carson, in her memory."

The American Automobile Association not only supported construction of the new highway, but has pushed for more to be built.

"Usually when you build a highway you move a lot of earth, but to get one built around Washington you have to move heaven and earth," said AAA spokesman John B. Townsend II. "The question isn't whether the ICC is needed, but how many more we need."

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