The hearing on plans for a mammoth road connecting Montgomery and Prince George's counties was 12 minutes old last Saturday when a slide outlining a "no-build" option flashed before the crowd in a Rockville high school auditorium. Immediately, the audience of 1,000 let loose with whoops, applause and prolonged foot-stomping.
"You know, there's nothing like a highway to get your blood boiling," joked one civic association leader, shouting over the din that briefly halted the hearing.
For homeowner-versus-bureaucrat drama in suburban Maryland, little these days compares with the debate over the Inter-County Connector (ICC) and the Rockville Facility, respectively 20- and nine-mile stretches of asphalt that would link I-270 to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. From the living rooms of Spencerville in eastern Montgomery, to county offices in Upper Marlboro and on legislators' phone lines in Annapolis, the angry talk is all about the ICC and RF, traffic screen lines, environmental impacts and diamond interchanges.
It is at once an emotional and technical debate--emotional because people's homes and neighborhoods would likely be affected if either project were constructed, technical because traffic volume estimates, employment projections and economic forecasts for the region will ultimately influence the decision whether to build.
"The ICC is that rare issue which cuts across all lines of income, partisan politics or where you happen to live," said Stuart E. Proctor Jr., a Rockville resident and highway foe who attended last Saturday's raucous hearing. When residents in Proctor's neighborhood near Montrose Road recently called an impromptu meeting on the ICC and Rockville spur, 300 people turned out in the rain and jammed a local church. Two County Council members who oppose the highway plans also took pains to attend.
State plans for the ICC and Rockville highway now call for two four-lane highways; two other major alternatives, including the "no-build" option, would involve a series of road widenings, realignments and new construction.
The Rockville line as proposed would follow a route from Montrose Road in southern Rockville northeast along Randolph Road to a point just west of New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring. The ICC route runs from the Shady Grove road area of Gaithersburg to New Hampshire Avenue to Rte. 29 to Gunpowder Road and I-95 in Prince George's to Rte. 1 to the parkway.
It has been only in recent months that the $221 million ICC and the $246 million Rockville line--the final fragments of the once-grand Outer Beltway plan of the late 1950s--received much attention from civic activists and local politicians. In the wake of the Outer Beltway's demise, officials confidently predicted a similar fate for the two highway proposals.
But Maryland transportation secretary Lowell K. Bridwell and his aides in the state highway administration, alarmed at predictions of huge increases in east-west traffic over the next 30 years, have proceeded steadily with costly studies, hearings and maps of the different route alternatives.
In a telephone interview this week, Bridwell reiterated his belief that cross-county traffic arteries already are overloaded. "The east-west highway facilities in central Maryland are inadequate," he declared. At the same time, he added, "Whether that translates into these two projects--the ICC and Rockville facility--I frankly don't know."
Bridwell, who is expected to decide by Jan. 1 whether to approve road construction, noted that resurfacing or widening existing roads would "give the state its fastest payoff.
"I won't settle this by referendum," said Bridwell, referring to last week's hearing in Rockville. "There's still considerable doubt" about the Rockville spur and ICC, he added.
Considerable, indeed. Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, whose office recently was flooded with 300 to 400 terse letters against the ICC, replied to them last week, saying: "My opposition to the Rockville facility has been consistent over the past 10 years and I have always been skeptical about a high-speed freeway" connecting Montgomery with its neighbors to the east.
In Prince George's, which an ICC would affect less than Montgomery, County Executive Parris N. Glendening has issued no final statement on the proposal, an aide said.
Prince George's officials favor an ICC leg connecting I-95 and Rte. 1, they said this week. Hart said the south Laurel area, now targeted for major economic growth, would be a beneficiary of that leg.
The strongest opposition to the road construction continues to be in the dozens of active civic groups scattered across the bi-county area.