Throughout the long debate over a proposed new east-west highway through Montgomery County, proponents said the $1 billion project was crucial to Maryland's continued growth and prosperity.
Scrap the intercounty connector and you risk isolating the state's leading technology companies along Interstate 270 from workers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, from fast-growing Howard County, from BWI Airport, the Baltimore port and Maryland's leading universities, a blue-ribbon state task force concluded in July.
Now, the decision by Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to kill the proposed intercounty connector parkway will put those warnings to the test. With the highway dead for the foreseeable future, long-held assumptions about how and where Maryland's economy would grow might now be out the window.
In shelving the project last week, Glendening acted to protect an arc of vulnerable park and watershed areas three to five miles north of the Capital Beltway along the primary route proposed for the ICC.
But Glendening's action may undermine another centerpiece of his vaunted "smart growth" economic development strategy, if increasing highway congestion seriously slows the flow of Maryland's high-tech economy.
The fallout from the decision might put Maryland farther behind Northern Virginia in the competition to attract technology companies. Or, it might spawn more technology-based economic growth along the Interstate 95 corridor running from College Park through BWI Airport to Baltimore. Indeed, "that's already happening," said Dian Brasington, head of the High Technology Council of Maryland.
"If we're going to be a strategic employment center, people not only have to get around Montgomery County, they have to get between the jurisdictions," said David W. Edgerley, director of economic development in Montgomery County.
"Maryland will lose growth opportunities, as will Montgomery County, because of that lack of conductivity," he added, "and it's projected to get worse."
To many opponents of the ICC, this vision of smoother traffic flows over a new east-west parkway is a chimera. Currently, motorists log 25 million vehicle miles of travel a day through the heart of Montgomery County. That will grow by 8 million vehicle miles by the year 2020, state forecasters predict. With so much pent-up demand for highway space, the region's motorists would soon clog the new highway, opponents say.
To prevent that from happening, a majority of the state's Transportation Solutions Group recommended in July that the connector include reserved lanes intended to allow vehicles with more than one occupant and buses to move freely. If capacity remained, single-occupancy vehicles could use the lanes by paying a sizable fee.
Such a limited-access strategy could have kept I-270 in close touch with BWI Airport, another vital link in Maryland's growth strategy. That trip could become unmanageable at rush hour in a few more years.
David Birch, head of the Cambridge, Mass., research firm Cognetics, says airport connections are critical in attracting knowledge-based companies, as is evident in the clustering of technology companies around Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia.
"We've observed that if you look at all the places where companies are growing the fastest, nine of the top 10 are connected to hub airports," Birch said.
Airports may not be the most important factor, he says. "You need a skilled work force, good places to live. But in a business where you have to take your brains and move them around for whatever reason ... airports [can] drive location decisions."
If that analysis is right, east-west traffic congestion in Montgomery County could steer business growth toward communities adjoining BWI in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.
"Howard County is booming. The absence of the ICC will benefit Howard at the expense of Montgomery County," said University of Baltimore economist Richard Clinch.
But Richard W. Story, director of Howard County's Economic Development Authority, isn't convinced that's the likely scenario. The companies headed toward his county like the closeness of BWI, but "mostly they're looking to shave a nickel per square foot off lease rates."
Instead of helping Howard, Story believes that the loss of the ICC will hurt growth throughout the Baltimore-Washington business corridor. "The key word is connector. The [ICC] would connect jurisdictions, companies, economies."
"It's a valid concern," replies Prince George's County Council member Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood), an ICC opponent. "The disagreement isn't over the problem. The question is, what's the reasonable solution?"
For his part, Maryland Secretary of Economic Development Richard C. Mike Lewin thinks the $250 million in road and intersection improvements in the Maryland suburbs will go a long way toward easing commuting times.
The fierce political debate over the ICC demonstrates a central difference between economic development in Maryland's technology center and Northern Virginia's broad successes.
The expansion around Dulles over the past decade occurred in largely undeveloped space suited for the kinds of office campuses tech companies prefer (and critics attack as "sprawl" campuses). While that development wasn't as controversial as the ICC, the many road problems it has now spawned have become a divisive issue in Northern Virginia.
But after decades of infighting over the ICC, the project wound up polarizing proponents of new growth and defenders of older, established communities like Shapiro's neighborhood near College Park.
"We should be encouraging job growth and investment inside the Beltway in older communities," he said -- not spending a fortune on a highway that will pull jobs farther away from those communities in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Shapiro is pushing for major investments in a light rail system from College Park to Silver Spring and possibly Bethesda, the "Purple Line" transit alternative to the ICC that could spur growth without increasing traffic congestion.
It's a hope that for now, seems a long way off.
"I'd like to see it in my lifetime," said Shapiro. He's 36.
CAPTION: FROM BAD TO WORSE
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