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Test-driving the ICC: Racetrack-smooth, but at 7.2 miles, lacking utility

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 6:23 PM

With very little light in the sky, my Toyota still not fully heated and no coffee running yet through my intake manifold, the once mythical but now partially completed Intercounty Connector suddenly became visible from Interstate 370. It was just before 6 a.m. - rooster time for a highway that took 50 years to hatch. The driver in front of me tapped the brakes, poised tentatively for takeoff on the open road ahead. Then he sped away. I followed.

For so many years, there has been so much hype from state and local government officials about how this highway would change our lives that I guess I was expecting a grander beginning: cars queuing up to be first, people waving from the emergency pull-off lanes, breakfast coupons, maybe a marching band. But on this chilly winter morning, there was none of that, just some blinking yellow highway signs saying Maryland Route 200 was now open.

First impression: very smooth. So smooth and quiet that slipping onto the ICC from the older, bumpier I-370 was instantly noticeable, like the weird sensation of crossing onto a different state's highway on a long car trip. I turned off WTOP. There are few sounds in the world more beautiful than tires gliding along a smooth road.

Second impression: With the way tires grip this open, racetrack-smooth highway, it's going to be difficult to honor the 55 mph speed limit. (Authorities seem to know this, and they were already out looking for speeders, even at 6 a.m., even on inauguration day. The highway hadn't seen its first rush hour before I saw one car with flashing lights behind it.) I hit 72 mph without even trying, then coasted back to 60. Going slower felt like I wasn't moving.

Driving on a new highway so close to one's home - I live in Germantown - is an odd experience. I felt, during that first trip east toward Norbeck Road, like a tourist on my own turf. Oh, it turns here. Oh, that exit comes up fast.

Where are the toll booths? Oh, that's right. There aren't any. Rather, there are the sensors hanging above the highway to buzz our E-ZPass transponders (and our credit cards).

ICC driving tip: Until people get the hang of this thing, watch for drivers crossing several lanes to exit.

In no time, I reached Norbeck, the farthest drivers can go and the point where construction on the rest of the highway continues. When the ICC reaches I-95, by the end of this year or next year, that will be life-changing and timesaving, I think. So far, this is just a 7.2-mile tease. Indeed, thinking about it as I exited, I couldn't come up with one legitimate use for my family on this first stretch of road. But it is very smooth.

I turned around and headed back west. Got off at Shady Grove Road, turned around again at the Metro station's Kiss-and-Ride zone. (Many rides, few kisses.) Headed back east. Back and forth, back and forth, all morning. Surely, so far, I am the ICC's heaviest user. Stopped for caffeine at Burger King on Georgia Avenue. Got back on.

The skies over the ICC grew lighter, lighter - then, whoa, the bright sun seemed to rise right along the edge of the highway, aiming a spotlight of sorts on the strangest part of the 10-minute trip across this heavily developed swath of Montgomery County: the earth-toned bricks and paint on the road's bridges, sound walls and light poles. The effect on drivers was supposed to be subtle, but for me it was not. I felt like I was driving through Whole Foods.

The luxury touches all along our region's new highway make sense given Montgomery's upscale, trendy ways. One need only to look at the high-end shops at the Collection at Chevy Chase - Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Barneys New York - to know that this is not your grandfather's capital of the free world. The other day, in Germantown, I saw a sign for a business called Luxury Towing. Luxury towing! The ICC, with its $2.56 billion price tag, is our luxury highway.

At 7:40 a.m., I was tailgated. Highway luxury wears off fast.

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