ICC aesthetics: Earth tones, arches and more that motorists might not notice

A bridge with four concrete piers that arch over Rock Creek is the ICC's signature design detail.
A bridge with four concrete piers that arch over Rock Creek is the ICC's signature design detail. (Mark Gail)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Many motorists who hit the Intercounty Connector's first stretch when it opens Wednesday might be too busy cruising along at 55 mph to notice, but the new toll highway is designed to be a real looker.

No ugly concrete-and-steel overpasses here, ICC officials say. Think earth tones, expansive arches and elegant curves along 7.2 miles of open asphalt.

The aesthetic details are designed to help the new highway, which will eventually span 18.8 miles between Gaithersburg and Laurel, blend into the landscape.

The first section stretches between Interstate 270 and Norbeck Road, just east of Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring. When the tolls kick in March 7 after a two-week "free trial" period, passenger vehicles will be charged 60 cents to $1.45, depending on the time of day.

Concrete for ICC overpasses was poured into special forms and stained to look like stone. The stone theme carries to the sound walls, which come in four complementary finishes - some with concrete "stone" from top to bottom, some only with horizontal stone panels - depending on each wall's height and distance from motorists. The large rocks at the base of the piers holding up overpasses were chosen for their brownish hues.

Instead of just being gray, galvanized steel, sign structures and guardrails were painted brown. Rather than end in boring straight edges, the piers holding up the overpasses arch at the top, as do the steel girders supporting the overpasses' roadbeds. Major overpasses - in this first section, that's the Georgia Avenue bridge carrying traffic over the ICC and into Olney - have decorative lighting and fencing to make them "gateways" to communities.

Although designers focused primarily on making the highway structurally sound, ICC officials said, the cosmetic touches should create an unobtrusive feel.

"There are a lot of little details that people wouldn't necessarily pick up on," said Melinda Peters , the Maryland State Highway Administration's project director on the ICC's construction. "They don't add a lot to the cost of construction, but they add a lot to the look."

The stone finishes on sound walls face motorists, while most residents on the other side see a solid brown stucco. The walls are designed to blend in with back yards and neighborhoods through heavier landscaping, much of which remains to be planted this spring, she said.

The aesthetic elements added 1 to 2 percent to the first section's $478.7 million cost, Peter said.

However, environmental groups say no amount of attractive design can offset the ICC's destruction to Maryland's streams, wetlands and wildlife. Many residents along the highway's path say the design doesn't alleviate their concerns about the potential health effects of living and playing adjacent to a major highway that replaced parkland and a large swath of thick trees.

"While earth tones are great and a stone look to overpasses is fine, the environmental issue is the [storm-water] runoff from the road into the streams below those overpasses," said David Hauck, a Montgomery County resident and member of the Maryland Sierra Club's executive committee.

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