Unbuilt Road Becomes Political Path
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 1998; Page B01
For years, the intercounty connector has been the exclusive obsession of a cadre of transportation planners, environmentalists and hard-bitten civic activists riveted by the dips and turns of a multilane highway that exists only in the imagination of bureaucrats at the Maryland State Highway Administration.
No more. Somewhat improbably, a $1 billion highway that many transportation experts say may never be built and that planners say would offer only modest relief for congestion on the Capital Beltway has become a flash point in Maryland's gubernatorial race.
After dropping his long-standing support for the road last spring, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has been trading barbs with his Republican rivals over a project that they say is key to the region's economic health but that environmentalists fear would destroy precious green space in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Glendening's likely GOP opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, roundly criticizes the governor for "flip-flopping," while Glendening says he is looking for pragmatic solutions to the region's traffic woes.
Beyond the rhetoric, the debate raises a larger question of whether elected officials here can even proceed with new highway projects given the costs, the divisions in the community and the multiple opportunities for opponents to derail the convoluted local, state and federal review process.
"The ICC dispute . . . is a microcosm of what's going on all over the country," said Tom Deen, chairman of a panel of transportation experts appointed by Glendening to study the road and alternatives. "We used to have a consensus on road building, but that's dissolved into a variety of views. . . . It's so polarized that neither group is getting what it wants, and the region may well be suffering."
Shiva K. Pant, transportation director in Fairfax County, where officials have nearly completed a cross-county Fairfax Parkway, has watched the imbroglio across the river with relief that the parkway avoided a similar fate.
Federal scrutiny of road projects is so stiff today, Pant said, that "the parkway is probably the last controlled-access highway to be built in the region."
Glendening described his decision as a practical response to a bureaucratic snarl that has kept the road from being built for more than 50 years since it was first planned. He said it would be better to study alternatives than to waste further time and money on a project that might never overcome environmental and legal hurdles.
"This defies common sense," Glendening said in a recent interview. "There must be another way of doing this. Let's see if we can break the deadlock."
The governor's move delighted environmentalists, but it has exposed him to fresh criticism from Sauerbrey and another GOP candidate, Charles I. Ecker, who accuse Glendening of needlessly waffling on a badly needed transportation project.
The ICC decision also has contributed to deepening dissatisfaction with the governor among business leaders and other road advocates.
"It's an election year U-turn," Lon Anderson, spokesman for the local chapter of the AAA, said of Glendening's move. "The record for over three years is replete with the governor saying the ICC was the number one traffic priority in the state, crucial for Maryland's economic well-being. Well, he was right then, and he's wrong now."
Pamela Lindstrom, a citizen activist from Gaithersburg who is a longtime critic of the ICC, said Glendening's about-face makes sense.
"There's enough opposition from local officials that it can't be built. There is no one who can overcome that," she said. "I think that government officials in general are just finding that there are no more good roads they can build. It's too late. It's not an option anymore. They don't solve the problem or meet the needs of people."
The ICC appeared on planning maps 50 years ago as part of a proposed outer beltway. The ring road was never built, but the connector did make it onto Montgomery's planning blueprint in the late 1960s. Under the county's master plan, the ICC would run for 17.5 miles, roughly parallel to and about four miles north of the Capital Beltway, beginning just north of Rockville and running east to Laurel.
As the county has grown, and as dozens of companies making high-tech products have located along I-270, some business people have looked to the proposed road as an even more important link between that high-growth area and the commercial corridor including Baltimore-Washington International Airport along I-95.
Former Maryland transportation secretary O. James Lighthizer calls the ICC "easily the most important unbuilt road in the state of Maryland, and it's every bit as important to Baltimore as to Montgomery and Prince George's."
But over the decades, changes in complex federal laws protecting parkland and wetlands have enmeshed plans for the ICC in sometimes arcane requirements.
Although the state and Montgomery each spent about $18 million to purchase right of way along the route chosen by county planners, many residents fought the road, some even appearing in fish costumes to protest threats to brown trout spawning streams that the planned road would cross. Seven federal and five local and state agencies weighed in on the planning process.
Finally last fall, after years of protests and public hearings, with a stack of spiral-bound studies 12 inches high and a Montgomery County Council split on the issue state engineers decided that much of the proposed route was so legally sacrosanct that no one would ever be able to build on it.
As Glendening tells it, his decision to refer the issue to Deen's panel was born of frustration with all the red tape. He recalled meetings last winter with aides who told him that the long-planned roadway already had consumed $82 million in state and local funds and needed an additional $3 million for a supplemental federal study.
"They said the study would take six to 12 months to do, and then they predicted there would be court challenges," Glendening said. "When I asked when construction would begin, they said, 'Not in your term, Governor not in your second term.' And I said, 'Wait, I'm the third governor to try to build this thing.'"
That is when Glendening says he decided to step back and reconsider.
His only regret, he said, is that he left too many close advisers and associates in the dark. Many of them read about his conversion on the ICC a road he'd supported passionately for a decade in an interview with The Washington Post.
Sauerbrey accuses Glendening of caving in to a difficult situation. "A governor has to make tough decisions," she said recently. "You can't make a decision based on the fact that it's not going to be popular with some communities."
Sauerbrey has made her support of the connector a centerpiece of her pro-highway campaign message. "If we are serious about improving transportation, containing sprawl and protecting neighborhoods, we must stop restudying the obvious and move forward to build the Intercounty Connector," she wrote in a recent Washington Post opinion piece.
In an interview, Sauerbrey said she would build the road on the route planned for years the precise route that state highway officials told Glendening would never pass environmental muster. She said she would try some innovative construction techniques that would put the highway on piers above the environmentally sensitive part of the route. "The road would in effect bridge the parkland," she said.
"Good luck" is the response of Glendening associates and others who have studied the construction techniques and doubt that they would ease federal concerns about protected areas. Plus, they said, that method would add substantially to the current $1.1 billion cost estimates for the highway a sum state officials already say they are not sure how to fund.
Sauerbrey concedes that she knows few details about the techniques or their costs. "I don't have transportation staff people and all the regulations at my fingertips," she said. "It's a little unfair for a candidate to have to address all these issues without a State Highway Administration behind you."
For all Glendening's expressed skepticism about the ICC and potential pitfalls ahead it's clear that the project is not officially dead. Deen and other members of the task force say they will consider "all options" for relieving traffic congestion in Montgomery, including some version of the ICC. And the state continues to buy property that could be needed for various ICC routes; most recently, the state paid $12 million to reserve 142 acres slated for development in the Burtonsville area of the county.
State highway officials say they have no choice. Federal law requires every alternative to be scrutinized. And the state's continued right-of-way purchases keep options open if the committee recommends some version of the ICC. Yet some residents worry that such moves are an indication that Glendening means merely to put the controversial issue off until after the election.
"This is a political move. He was getting votes because people thought he was against the ICC," said Montgomery County Council member Betty Ann Krahnke (R-Potomac-Bethesda). "He was, with his hand behind his back and his fingers crossed. Now, he's buying up land in an area where the road was never supposed to be."
Glendening says such talk is nonsense. "We are saying in fairness you cannot consider all options unless all are open," Glendening said. "I know some people aren't happy with that."
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