Maryland, Environmental Groups Settle Last Lawsuit

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008; Page B05

The state of Maryland settled the final legal challenge to construction of the Intercounty Connector yesterday, agreeing to spend $2 million to reduce air pollution from school buses in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and install new air quality-monitoring equipment.

Last November, a federal judge in Greenbelt rejected a lawsuit by a number of environmental groups opposed to the 18.8-mile intercounty connector through the two counties. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club appealed the decision. Environmental Defense negotiated the settlement with the state. While not a party to the settlement, the Sierra Club also dropped its appeal yesterday.

"Given where we are in the legal process, this settlement is the best outcome that can be obtained," said Michael Ripoll, transportation director for Environmental Defense. "It will help to offset the effects of the ICC on public health. The monitors will provide important information to enable the state to design their air pollution control strategy to be more protective of public health for people who live close to highways such as Interstate 95.''

The six-lane ICC, estimated to cost $2.4 billion, will link Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg and the Interstate 95-U.S. 1 corridor in Laurel. The connector, which will run outside the Capital Beltway, will be one of the region's first new highways in a generation. It is scheduled to open, in sections, between 2010 and 2012.

"We're very pleased we were able to reach settlement," said Neil J. Pederson, director of the Maryland State Highway Administration. "Rather than spending money on legal expenses, we are able to spend money in ways that will help the environment in addition to the extensive environmental stewardship package we already had with the Intercounty Connector."

In the lawsuits, ICC opponents argued that state and federal agencies did not adequately consider cheaper, less environmentally damaging alternatives, such as adding mass transit or improving local roads. They also argued that the agencies made mistakes in determining how much traffic and air pollution the new road would generate.

In his ruling last year that allowed construction on the highway to begin, U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. said the state's study "thoroughly considered, examined and, most importantly, corrected the deficiencies from previous failed attempts." The federal government's approval of the project was within "the bounds of reasoned decision-making," he added.

Advocates say Maryland's congested suburbs desperately need more road capacity, particularly to ease traffic on two-lane roads heavy with east-west traffic. The highway, supporters say, will link the fast-growing I-270 and I-95 corridors and speed travel between Montgomery and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Opponents have long argued that the highway would destroy local wildlife, forests and streams, increase air pollution and encourage people to drive more. Among other arguments, the lawsuits contended that the agencies made mistakes in determining how much traffic and air pollution the new road would generate.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company