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ICC opens to traffic

On a rainy Monday, officials gathered in Gaithersburg for the official ribbon-cutting ceremony before the Wednesday opening of the Intercounty Connector, the 18.8-mile highway that will connect Prince George's and Montgomery counties. The ICC's opening was scheduled for Tuesday but was delayed a day because of weather concerns.

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 10:07 PM

Motorists took more than 30,000 free trips on the Washington area's newest toll road Wednesday, when the first 7.2-mile stretch of the Intercounty Connector opened to traffic in the pre-dawn darkness.

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The number of drivers curious about the six-lane highway - or eager to escape bumper-to-bumper local roads - remained low enough to give it an empty, forgotten feel for much of the day. Open pavement remained plentiful even during the morning rush, when 5,600 vehicles used it between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Eric Letvin of Elkridge said he was surprised more people didn't join him on the first section that opened between Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg and Norbeck Road, one mile east of Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring.

"It's so open, you almost feel like you're driving on the moon," said Letvin, an engineer who commutes to the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg.

The empty asphalt made it difficult for many motorists to keep to the posted 55 mph speed limit. The "slow" lane often traveled at 65 mph. Maryland Transportation Authority Police issued citations and written warnings, though the total number wasn't available late yesterday, said Sgt. Jonathan Green. Officers also helped drivers who couldn't find their way off the highway, he said.

By 4 p.m., after being open about 12 hours, the first day's traffic count reached 21,500 - the number of vehicles that Maryland transportation officials said they expect will eventually use that section in a 24-hour period after traffic volumes stabilize.

Traffic will continue to increase over the next three to five years - the typical "ramp-up period" for a new toll road, said Kelly Melhem, a Maryland Transportation Authority spokeswoman.

"As excited as we are to have all these vehicles trying out the road, it's certainly not indicative of what traffic volumes are likely to be over the long term," she said.

The highway's true popularity will be measured over the coming months, particularly after tolls kick in March 7.

The tolls for passenger vehicles on the first stretch - based on some of the highest rates in the United States - will be 60 cents to $1.45 for passenger vehicles, depending on the time of day. Driving the entire 18.8-mile segment will cost passenger vehicles up to $6.15. The rest of the ICC is scheduled to open to Interstate 95 in Prince George's County by early 2012.

State officials have said they will keep the road free-flowing, even if it means raising rates to discourage some motorists.

The ICC is Maryland's first all-electronic toll road, with tolls being charged at highway speeds via vehicles' E-ZPass transponders. Motorists without an E-ZPass will receive a "notice of toll due" in the mail, along with a $3 administrative fee. That fee will be waived until April 6.


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