Congressman Michael D. Barnes was making one of his many stops on the reelection trail. "What do you think," a voice boomed from the back of the meeting hall, "of the ICC?"

After a pause, the freshman congressman from Montgomery County slowly began to tick off the merits of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

"Where have you been?" the voice interrupted. "I meant what do you think about the Inter-County Connector?"

Few initials are as well-known or incite as much rancor in Montgomery County as those assigned to the Inter-County Connector and its 10-mile spur, the Rockville Facility, a passion that is stranger still considering the imminence of the project's death.

"It's no longer a question of when to build," said one county official. "Now it's merely a question of how to give the thing a polite burial."

Although the death of a road proposal is nothing new in Maryland these days, few roads have taken longer or cost more to kill than this 32-mile stretch of east-west roadway that would curve across the northern portion of the county and jut briefly into Prince George's. First traced on a county map in 1950, the Inter-County Connector/Rockville Facility has devoured more than 30 years of almost continuous study and $16 million in federal, state and local funds.

But despite the millions and despite the consensus that the roadway is no closer to being built today than it was 30 years ago, the Inter-County Connector/Rockville Facility is still the subject of weekly meetings and million-dollar expenditures. A private consulting firm is entering the last stages of a $1.6 million planning study, the second of its kind in a decade, and earlier this year the Montgomery County Park and Planning Commission spent $1.2 million for two tracts of land in Gaithersburg that run along the Inter-County Connector route.

State highway officials still travel from Baltimore to Montgomery and Prince George's counties to give updates on the project to local elected officials. Citizen advisory groups, perhaps the most vocal and successful opponents of the project, still meet regularly to plot how to keep the highway out of their neighborhoods. State legislators continue to propose bills to stop funding studies of the proposed roads.

Why the last rites continued to be administered to this dying concrete mirage without pulling the fund-support plug is as much a chronicle of the state highway administration's last attempts to salvage the state's romance with the highway as it is a tale of the changing planning patterns in Montgomery County.

It is as much, and perhaps more, a symbol of the strength of citizen opposition in the county as it is an example of the highway administration's disastrous financial status.

Visions of growth in the Washington area were big those days in the early 1950s. Nearly a million people were expected to move into Montgomery by the 1980s. In preparation for the expected development explosions, master plans were divvied up into large corridors of development with spiderwebs of highways and roads reaching out over then largely rural areas, making all points in the metropolitan area accessible within minutes by car.

A major component of the overall plan was the proposed Capital Beltway, and another route, a wider and longer stretch of road called the Outer Circumferential Freeway -- later known as the Outer Beltway -- was included in the 1957 "General Plan for the Maryland-Washington Regional District." Earlier, in 1950, a cross-county loop linking Montgomery County and Prince George's had been proposed.

The Outer Circumferential Freeway, as proposed in 1957, was of mammoth proportions: 122 miles of concrete circling the Beltway, stretching across Montgomery County south of Rockville through Prince George's and crossing the Potomac in the River Bend area in Fairfax County. In 1971, after citizen protests, the Outer Beltway would be moved north of Rockville, but a 10-mile strip connecting Rockville to it would be retained.

That first rearrangement of the highway plan later would prove to be only one of numerous and continuous alterations. It also would be the last time the highway plans grew by any significant length.

Since 1971, mile by mile, county by county, the once-grand Outer Beltway has been the object of truncations that continue to this day. The Inter-County Connector/Rockville Facility is all that remains of the Outer Beltway proposal. The only slight growth added to the plan was a 2.8-mile addition in 1975 that would connect the soon-to-open Metrorail station at Shady Grove Road with the Inter-County Connector.

That section, I-370, comparable to 2.5 percent of the beltway's original proportions, is the only portion of the Outer Beltway that state highway officials say has any chance of being built. Even then, they warn that if plans cannot be approved by 1983, chances for federal funding will be lost.

Much of the highway dropout game occurred in the early '70s. Virginia dropped its plan of an interstate link-up after environmentalists blocked a Potomac River crossing at Bealls Island. Much of the roadway in Prince George's slipped from the master plans when growth predictions in the southern part of the county looked like they would not be met, and citizen opposition mounted.

Only 5 1/2 miles of roadway remain on the state's books for Prince George's County.

"It became increasingly clear to us in the middle '70s that the concept of an entire ring was beginning to fall apart," recalled state highway director Slade Caltrider from his office in Baltimore. "The cost began to look astronomical, public opposition was growing and historical growth trends were not being met. The development we expected in the southern part of Prince George's County just never occurred.

"There were problems with the whole kit and caboodle but thank goodness, good sense prevailed," Caltrider said of state highway officials' willingness to drop their fight for the full Outer Beltway.

Good sense didn't prevail for all the planning process, however. Ironically, Caltrider said, if the state had moved quickly in those early planning years and had pushed for site approval and committed the funds, construction of the Outer Beltway, or at least the present 32-mile Inter-County Connector/Rockville Facility, would probably be beginning in a couple of years.

The state's highway coffers were in good shape. Matching federal funds were readily available. Federal regulations requiring public hearings and extensive environmental reports did not yet exist and much of the area where the roadway was planned was undeveloped. Political support for the proposal was strong.

"But (the Outer Beltway) wasn't a high priority then, and by the time it did become a high priority everything had changed," Caltrider said.

The energy crisis dropped like a bomb on the highway administration's treasury, drastically cutting revenues from gas taxes and causing planned projects to be erased by the dozens from the state's master plan. The Federal Highway Administration imposed strict new planning regulations and cut back on funds. Houses and subdivisions began popping up along the highway's routes, swelling the ranks of citizens opposed to the roads cutting through their neighborhoods.

"From post-World War II to the '60s there was a tremendous emphasis in the state with growth. We all seemed to be having a love affair with the automobile and couldn't get enough highways," said Hal Kassoff, director of the state office of planning and preliminary engineering. "Then in the 1970s there was an apparent reversal of attitudes. People began to question whether growth was good or whether we needed new highways. The public's answer was usually no."

One of the people who has shouted "no" the loudest and the longest is Sammie Young.

A former military man and now an administrator with the Federal Drug Administration, 53-year-old Young first discovered that a major freeway was scheduled to cut through the wooded area 350 feet from his split-level home in upper Silver Spring about a month after he transferred from Philadelphia in late 1971.

"I was standing in the kitchen talking to one of my neighbors when he mentioned the Outer Beltway. He said, 'Do you see those trees over there? That's where it is going to be.' "

Like many of his neighbors, the usually mild-mannered Young says he was never told by the real estate agent about the planned freeway. Since the early 1970s, however, a new county ordinance requires home buyers to sign a release stating that they have seen the area's master plan or are waiving the right to do so. If that ordinance had been in place when Young bought his home, what he would have seen is what he looks at several times a week now: a map with a freeway traced right by his house.

On May 31, 1972, Young expressed his opposition to the Outer Beltway at a public hearing in the County Council chambers. That was his first public hearing. It was the first in what has evolved into a decade-long road show of attending public hearings and citizens meetings, and holding civic association offices. With the exception of about a year-and-a-half lag in the late '70s, Young said, few weeks pass when there is not some meeting, some workshop, that he attends.

"When I first came here I was never involved in anything. I was a military man most of my life. I was trained to go along with the plans," Young said on a recent chilly afternoon in his den as he unrolled map after map. "It took me a while to get angry. But I have. . . . It's not that I distrust any individuals; it's the (highway) system that I distrust.

"There are plenty of other roads that run parallel to the proposed route that could be widened. We're not saying 'don't do anything,' we're just asking them to use the facilities that are already there."

In particular, Young noted three routes, all within three to five miles of each other, that could be expanded: Randolph Road, Briggs Chaney Road and Rte. 198.

State and county planning officials said they were considering these alternatives, but that the problem with these routes is the same problem as with the original route: Everyone wants some type of improved east-west thoroughfare but not in their neighborhood.

Much of the debate over where or whether to build a roadway, planning experts concede, probably is academic. Even if the highway is raised from its much-studied deathbed in 1983, when a final decision must be made about what steps to take next, there is no money to build the project.

It would be at least another 25 years, Kassoff said, before the state highway administration could even consider looking for the money. And the extra $635 million expected in revenues in the next six years from Gov. Harry Hughes' stop-gap gas tax increase proposal already is committed.

Kassoff also readily admits that even now the department is no longer seriously considering building the Inter-County Connector or the Rockville Facility. Continued planning of the Rockville Facility, he says, will probably not be recommended in 1983 when the $1.6 million study is completed.

The planning group, comprised of state and local officials and the private consulting firm of Henningson, Durham and Richardson, is expected to recommend that the county once again study the Inter-County Connector -- this time as four lanes -- and begin trying to get funds for the 2.8-mile I-370.

The group's recommendation then would have to be approved by the County Council, county executive, county senators and delegates, and the secretary of transportation.

But even with the nod of elected officials, there's a major hitch: preserving the land where the road would be build in its undeveloped state for the 25 years before planners can even consider looking for construction money.

That means either buying the land or putting it in reservation -- a three-year moratorium on building during which the land owner is not required to pay any taxes. After three years the land must be bought or the owner is allowed to develop. The state already has spent more than $8 million and the county more than $4 million in acquiring property, but much of that was in the Rockville Facility area. State planners don't know how much land they eventually would have to purchase but concede there are still major portions to be bought.

"What we would do beyond the three years I don't know," Kassoff said. "If we had to put up the money, there would be a real problem that we don't have the solution to right now."

Last year the Inter-County Connector/Rockville Facility was included in a list of 20 projects that the state highway administration recommended be deleted from the administration's 20-year capital transportation project budget at the "next sensible time." For this project that would be 1983, when the study is finished.