Area business leaders, politicians and environmentalists spent nearly 50 years locked in debate over the merits of the proposed Intercounty Connector before Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening killed the highway project in September.

Far from ending the debate, however, the governor's roadblock merely intensified it. And given the strong resolve on both sides of the debate, the ICC will likely continue to be an issue for at least another decade, if not longer.

There has to be some other way, meanwhile, of addressing the problem that the ICC was intended to solve: the absence of a major east-west highway--north of the crowded Capital Beltway--that would link the burgeoning Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County to the county's eastern region, Prince George's County and the I-95 corridor.

A proposal developed by University of Maryland officials would dramatically improve travel between the two areas while helping to fuel growth in the two counties' high-technology sectors, among others.

Understandably, state and local officials may be reluctant to endorse the proposal at this early stage. It nevertheless warrants immediate attention as a potential blueprint for better traffic management and economic expansion.

Far from being an alternative to the ICC, the university's proposal is designed not only to improve mass transit in the area but also to support the governor's "smart growth" policies.

Basically, the proposal calls for development of a light-rail transit line linking existing Metro stations in Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton. The proposed transit route, tentatively designated the Inner Purple Line, would also provide connections to Maryland's MARC commuter trains and Amtrak stations.

The Inner Purple Line could be extended to Tysons Corner, according to university officials, thereby enhancing its value to a wider segment of the region's economy and mass-transit system.

University officials outlined the proposal nearly three weeks ago in a letter to William H. Hussmann, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board. Copies were mailed to at least 15 other state and local officials, including Glendening.

The reactions of those officials have been magnified by their silence on the subject. Not even Hussmann has replied to the letter from Charles F. Sturtz, the university's vice president for administrative affairs.

"We think the Purple Line could be an important catalyst for further 'smart growth' economic integration of the two counties," Sturtz said in the letter to Hussmann. "Given the importance of our counties to the economy of Maryland, the project becomes one of significance at the state level." Noting the university's support of Hussmann's efforts to promote "rational" transportation and land use development choices, Sturtz asked that he consider the university's recommendation to include its Purple Line proposal in the priorities for state funding during next year's budget cycle.

Maryland's Department of Transportation is already considering a number of options for the Washington area, including preliminary discussions of a Purple Line, among other proposed Metro extensions.

Even though the University of Maryland has been involved in that planning process, Sturtz said the institution wanted to express its support for one of the options. It's obvious, however, that the university's interest goes much deeper than that.

"We are concerned that travel patterns of our 50,000 students, faculty and staff may not be fully considered in your computer models," he noted in the letter to Hussmann.

"The university is already a magnet for large numbers of people who come here," Sturtz said during an interview this week. "We see that light rail would be beneficial, especially for people coming from the western part of the region.

"Second, we want to take advantage of our presence as an economic engine. We think we can be a technology center [and] an active player in technology-driven activities" in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The point is well taken, of course. As Sturtz noted in the letter to Hussmann, the university's internationally recognized engineering, computer sciences, physics and life sciences programs could play important roles in a bi-county effort to market the area as a major technology center. Moreover, the university already has significant research ties with federal agencies in both counties, including the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Call the university's interest in wanting a light-rail line an example of enlightened self-interest or, if you prefer, just plain opportunistic. Ultimately, the region and the state of Maryland would be winners if the university's recommendation is approved.

"A Purple Line running along the University Boulevard corridor would provide a clear signal to business, investors and residents that there is a long-term commitment to recovery and prosperity in this important corridor," Sturtz asserted in his letter to Hussmann. "As the experience in Silver Spring shows, the cost of dealing with economic decline can be substantial."

The silence of policymakers on that and other aspects of the university's light-rail proposal is instructive, to say the least.