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The Rough Road: Maryland's Intercounty Connector highway is in the hands of Melinda Peters

Project director Melinda Peters is in charge as Maryland's Intercounty Connector begins to take shape after five decades.

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By Katherine Shaver
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Melinda Peters's three-inch heels tap in frustration beneath the conference table. It is December, and the rain hasn't let up for months. Construction on the largest -- and most controversial -- highway built in the Washington region since Interstate 66 has turned into a muddy mess and is weeks behind schedule. A large digital clock hangs on the wall behind Peters's head. Its glowing red numbers tick down to the day in late 2011 when the state of Maryland plans to open the 18.8-mile Intercounty Connector highway to thousands of vehicles traveling between Montgomery and Prince George's counties: "Days: 708. Hours: 02. Minutes: 40."

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One of the project's consultants reports the latest problem: Workers haven't had enough consecutive dry days to lay asphalt. That means a new bridge that will carry Georgia Avenue over the ICC in Silver Spring remains out of commission. Without pavement to connect it to the existing road, the bridge is useless. Without the bridge, traffic can't be rerouted to keep work moving. Lane closure restrictions during rush hours -- and, worse yet, more rain -- would cause even further delays.

Suddenly, Peters has an idea: Avoid prolonged pain. Rip the Band-Aid off quickly.

"What would it take to do a full closure?" she asks. "How long would it take to get [the paving] done overnight with a detour?"

The other 15 people at the long conference table -- all of them men -- stare back. A long, silent moment passes before someone speaks up, "Oh, man, talk about thinking outside the box."

"I'm talking about the middle of the night with a lot of notification," Peters says. "Would people like to be inconvenienced overnight for one night or for six weeks?... I think we're all tired of staring at a bridge we can't get traffic on."

"Okay," says the consultant, Dennis McMahon. "We'll look at that way-outside-the-box stuff."

***

Much about Peters, in fact, is atypical. The job of project director in highway construction -- a career-defining role -- typically goes to men in their 50s and 60s with 30-plus years of experience. Peters is 37. When she took on the job at the Maryland State Highway Administration in 2006, she was 11 years out of Virginia Tech's engineering school and had two young children. She is one of the youngest women in the United States to manage the design and construction of a "major project," a term reserved for those that are particularly large and complex, with budgets topping $500 million, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Plans for the ICC roiled Maryland politics for 50 years, spawning two federal lawsuits and sparking decades of protest before turning an enormous swath of the Maryland suburbs into a dirt pit. Business leaders and supporters deemed the six-lane highway critical to speeding travel between the state's Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 business corridors, and reducing congestion on east-west roads outside the Capital Beltway. Environmental groups argued that it would promote more sprawl (and, in turn, more traffic and air pollution) while destroying the wetlands, woods and streams in its path.

The debate effectively ended in late 2007, when a federal judge rejected the environmental groups' lawsuits, clearing the way for construction of the $2.56 billion highway -- the most expensive Maryland has ever built.

Mike Baker, the ICC's environmental construction manager, who also worked on the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge reconstruction, is blunt about the pressure that Peters -- and her 25-person management team -- are under.


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