Md. Tollway Remains a Road Not Taken
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 3 1997; Page A01
Once built, a road is measured in miles. But how best to gauge the Inter-County Connector, the phantom freeway of the Maryland suburbs?
There's money: $44 million invested so far, with nothing to show beyond a stubby spur of a spur. There's time: 47 years since the freeway first showed up on a master plan. But for Frank Darrow, the proper measure of the ICC is a lifetime.
"I graduated high school, graduated college, got married, had kids, had grandchildren, and they're still studying it. It has become part of my family," said Darrow, 57, chief transportation planner for Prince George's County, where the ICC would arrive from neighboring Montgomery -- were it ever built.
"I sure as heck don't want to say we'll be studying this into the next millennium," he said. "It's a nice catchy tune, but we want to make some decisions here. Move on with the rest of our lives."
On paper, that may be about to happen. The latest, most exhaustive study yet is scheduled to conclude in the spring, opening the way to the final selection of a preferred route from Gaithersburg across eastern Montgomery County to just north of Beltsville. But paper is where the 18-mile tollway has existed for so very, very long that some people have trouble imagining it in a third dimension. In fact, among the five official options remaining for the project, four are routes, and one is to build nothing -- a nod to the homeowners, environmentalists and civic opposition that have restricted the road to the drawing boards so far.
"In the 1980s, when they were actually getting ready to build it, [opposition] reached a furious state," said Graham Norton, the Montgomery Transportation Department chief. "And now, this summer, we're going to reach the furious state again."
Said Neil Pedersen, planning director for the Maryland State Highway Administration, "I won't even try to predict what the outcome will be."
If everything moves ahead normally, construction might begin in 2000, an even half-century after the roadway was first envisioned. But little about the ICC has been normal, even for a road that would lie mostly in a county that has a reputation for "paralysis by analysis."
It began as a bypass's bypass, one segment of a so-called Outer Beltway that planners, now retired or dead, envisioned looping around the Capital Beltway. "Outer Circumferential #4" reads the lettering on a 1955 planners' map, describing a route across the Potomac from Loudoun County, through central Montgomery and into Prince George's past Interstate 95 to a neighborhood south of Laurel.
"Too bad it wasn't built then. It would've been a lot easier for everyone," said Robert Grow, transportation specialist at the Greater Washington Board of Trade, a major ICC booster.
But with the rise of environmentalism, the Outer Beltway fell out of favor. In pulling the western leg from its master plan in the 1970s, Montgomery County declared sacrosanct the rolling landscape of farms and tract mansions west of Rockville. Plans for the eastern leg remained, however, and because a bit of it flapped into Prince George's, the proposed road was dubbed the Inter-County Connector.
The first real attempt to build anything began in the late 1970s. It ended 10 years later with the opening of 2.5 miles of expressway known as Interstate 370. The four-lane expressway, which runs from Interstate 270 to the Shady Grove Metro stop, cost $169 million. But 90 percent of that was paid by the federal government because the project satisfied certain requirements, the heart of which is the environmental impact statement.
State officials spent most of the 1980s trying to draft a winning impact statement for the rest of the ICC route but failed again and again.
"They tried to wing it," said Sammie Young, a member of the citizens' advisory committee then monitoring the project. "They did, excuse me, a half-assed job."
Road advocates prefer softer language, pointing out that the ground was shifting under engineers in the '80s as federal agencies tightened rules governing the wetlands that the ICC route cannot avoid. Today, the most obvious challenge remains the streams feeding Paint Branch Creek, tributaries so clean they harbor the area's only native brown trout. Building a freeway that would avoid draining into them does much to drive the project's estimated cost from the $500 million base line to the $1 billion that planners call a real possibility.
"My Backyard," the title of one citizen group's newsletter, hints at another battleground.
Since the expressway first appeared on the master plan, Montgomery and the state have spent $35 million buying land and now own more than half of the right of way along the master plan route. Over the decades, hundreds of houses have been built nearby, along terrain that appeared to be simply unused.
In nearly every way, Montgomery is a north-south county with few avenues for east-west transit except the crowded Capital Beltway. And if planners in 1950 thought car traffic required a new corridor for the county's 160,000 residents, they would shudder now that the population has grown to more than 810,000.
Still, opponents simply want congestion relieved somewhere else.
Montgomery County Council member Neal Potter (D-At Large), who calls the ICC "a necessary evil," likes to quote a former planning chief who said, "What this county needs is a mile-away freeway."
Planners have tried to soften the impact by designing the ICC as a six-lane parkway, but no one claims to be changing minds.
Given the stakes, said transportation chief Norton, it's surprising that "a substantial number of the people involved keep the debate at a civil level."
But then, a lot of them go way back together.
"I'm the longest protesting," Young acknowledged with a bashful smile. "I testified first in May of '72."
The retired Air Force colonel is the self-described "granddaddy" of ICC opposition -- a veteran not only of the 1979 citizens' group but also of a 1974 panel. He seems to mean it when he says, after all these years, "The thing that frustrates me is that people have never gotten the full story."
With only 18 years on the issue, Frank Vrataric is a relative newcomer. Still, the retired weapons systems analyst figures he has attended "about 1,000" public meetings on the ICC.
Tuesday night offered a double-header. The first meeting, at 6 p.m., was the ICC Update, held the last Tuesday of every month. It was followed immediately by a session of the environmental study group, one of three oversight panels operating separately from the Citizens' Advisory Committee, which is separate from the ICC Study Steering Committee.
Unless otherwise noted, all sessions take place at the official ICC clubhouse, a suite of converted classrooms in an old elementary school north of Randolph Road, where New Hampshire Avenue lurches down to two lanes. On the sign outside, a vandal has circled the letters ICC in red spray paint and added a slash through them.
"Oh, yeah, we have grizzled veterans in all corners here," a state highway official said in a crowded room decorated entirely with maps and diagrams of public participation. Outreach has been a watchword for the latest ICC study, which has had its own newsletter, cable shows, letterhead and electronic bulletin board. Everything, it sometimes seems, except pavement.
"It's a facade. A giant facade," said Young, who showed up with about 30 fellow regulars regardless.
The draft environmental impact statement is being reviewed by eight federal and state agencies, Montgomery planner Joe Anderson said, and remains on track for public release in the spring. Then public hearings will be held before the state and counties together agree on a recommendation for state Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead and Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who can do what they want, as long as federal officials approve.
More than once, someone rose to point out that Winstead used to work for a law firm hired to promote the ICC and that Glendening has embraced the roadway for years. Opponents hold out little hope of changing the mind of either. That's why they have been trying so hard to influence the recommendation that will be presented publicly to the state officials about a year before Glendening faces reelection.
"Stop Outer Beltway," read the angry red lettering on the paper a young man had walked over and tacked on a wall. He had changed a road map into a protest sign. "Bypass Surgery," it said.
Possibly, a half-century of prelude is about to give way to the main event. Absolutely no one, however, is willing to say so for sure.
"There's a clock on the wall that we usually have," Anderson said as the meeting began. "The battery ran out."
18 MILES, 47 YEARS
Spanning two generations of events and an investment of $44 million, mere discussion of the Inter-County Connector freeway project has taken on a life of its own. Yet another study is scheduled to be completed in the spring, paving the way for selection of a preferred route. Other options include widening existing roads or bulding nothing.
Proposed freeway linking central Montgomery and northern Prince George's counties appears on master plans.
U.S. troops dispatched to Korean War.
Construction begins on Capital Beltway. Future Inter-County Connector shown on a map as part of a proposed Outer Beltway.
Bill Clinton enters third grade.
Capital Beltway opens.
Tonkin Gulf Resolution passes Congress. Beatles appear on "Ed Sullivan Show."
Outer Beltway dropped from regional plans.
First Earth Day is held. Beatles break up.
First formal ICC study begins.
Americans taken hostage at U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Washington Board of Trade revives plan for 150-mile Outer Beltway. Estimated cost: $1 billion.
Space shuttle Challenger explodes.
First formal ICC study abandoned.
Berlin Wall falls.
Latest ICC study begins.
Bill Clinton sworn in as 42nd U.S. president.
Study winnows ICC route options to five. Top estimated cost for 18 miles: $1 billion.
SOURCE: Maryland Department of Transportation
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