Opponents of an intercounty connector are urging the federal government to reject requests by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to streamline the environmental review of the Maryland highway project.
Montgomery Council member Philip Andrews (D-Rockville), a connector opponent, wrote U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta on Dec. 12, saying the proposed highway linking Interstates 270 and 95 would cause too much damage to be considered in an expedited study.
Andrews said yesterday that the Bush administration's recent moves to ease restrictions on logging, power plants and oil drilling show that it is not a "credible entity" to do a streamlined environmental review of a major highway project.
"This is the environmental equivalent of asking the fox to guard the henhouse," Andrews said. "I don't think the skids should be greased on the ICC."
Thirteen environmental groups signed a separate Dec. 12 letter to Mineta, saying that President Bush's executive order calling for streamlined environmental reviews of high-priority transportation projects was not intended for such a controversial proposal.
The intercounty connector is one of about 70 road, transit and airport projects that state and local officials nationwide want put on the fast track. Environmental reviews, which require public comment and federal approval, can take three to five years. They analyze effects on neighborhoods, historical sites, traffic, noise, air quality, woodlands and wetlands.
Mineta plans to choose the expedited projects in January, focusing on those of national or regional significance.
The connector's effects on central Montgomery's streams and forests have always been the most contentious issue in the 40-year debate over building the road. The 18-mile highway, which has been in county plans since the 1960s, would move east-west traffic through Montgomery and Prince George's counties by connecting I-270 and I-95 four miles north of the Capital Beltway. The cost has been estimated at $1.3 billion.
The project stalled in 1999 when Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) canceled the state's environmental review. Glendening said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already had found that the long-preferred route would harm too much parkland, wetlands and watersheds to win federal approval.
But the outlook changed this year, when Ehrlich and his Democratic opponent in the race for governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, came out in favor of the highway project. At the same time, Duncan made the project the focal point of his reelection campaign, and he successfully pushed for the election of a pro-connector Montgomery County Council.
Duncan wrote Mineta three days after the election, calling the highway the "single most important transportation project in the state of Maryland."
"I really don't understand why [connector opponents] are so afraid of us completing the environmental study," Duncan said yesterday. "They want to stop this before we have all the facts."
Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick said Duncan and Ehrlich discussed the project at length during their first sit-down meeting Monday. Ehrlich told Duncan that he would aggressively pursue getting the project on a fast track, Schurick said.
Without being expedited, Maryland officials have said, an environmental study would take two to five years, depending on whether the federal government allowed the state to update the previous one or required it to start over.
Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.