The U.S. Department of Transportation announced yesterday that it has decided to speed up an environmental review of the intercounty connector, a decision that proponents hailed as a kick-start for a Maryland highway project proposed more than 40 years ago.

Under the expedited process, the environmental impact of an 18-mile road that would link the Interstates 270 and 95 corridors will be reviewed by a task force of at least seven federal transportation and environmental agencies.

"This is a big deal. It's a major step," said Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who pledged during last year's campaign to complete the highway project, which his predecessor, Democrat Parris N. Glendening, had halted in 1999.

Ehrlich said he lobbied U.S. transportation officials to get the connector review on a fast track, hoping that the state would be able to break ground in the next four years.

"We've been hyper-aggressive on this," Ehrlich said, "because this is one of the key procedural moves that had to be made to get us on the timeline which we're developing."

Opponents of the highway -- which would carry east-west traffic through Montgomery and Prince George's counties north of the Capital Beltway -- said they feared that an expedited review will allow proponents to sidestep environmental laws. Glendening called off an earlier environmental study because the Environmental Protection Agency had determined that the road would cause too much damage to Montgomery parkland, watersheds and wetlands. Studying it again, opponents said, would waste money better spent on widening existing roads and improving transit.

"The intercounty connector is snake oil being marketed as congestion relief by development interests," said Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg).

The project will receive the scrutiny required by federal environmental laws, said Lenny Alcivar, a spokesman for U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. But having the various agencies, such as the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, work together can streamline a process that otherwise takes four to six years, Alcivar said.

"It doesn't minimize the review process," Alcivar said, "but it makes it so that you don't get potential delays based on the type of bureaucratic inertia that too often plagues all aspects of projects."

Robert L. Flanagan, Ehrlich's nominee for transportation secretary, said he could not predict when the state will submit a study of the project for federal review. The state has $2 million earmarked to continue the study, Flanagan said, and $8 million more is needed from the general fund to complete it. He said a state team examining the project has not determined whether Maryland will start over or update the study that Glendening halted.

Either way, Flanagan said, Maryland will highlight two arguments not included in the draft study that was submitted under Glendening: The proposed route about four miles north of the Capital Beltway links areas of concentrated development; and the road would be built with "modern, environmentally sensitive construction methods."

He said the estimated cost of building the road is $1.4 billion.

The connector was one of six transportation projects selected from 70 nominated nationwide by state and local officials for expedited review. Yesterday's announcement brought the number of projects selected since October to 13.

Proponents say the highway would alleviate jammed east-west roads linking the fast-growing I-270 corridor with I-95 and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The study has to be completed, they said, to find ways to mitigate environmental effects that would be caused by any road or transit project.

Richard Parsons, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, which supports the connector, estimated that the expedited review will save two years.

"We could basically be looking at an eight-year time frame on this project instead of 10 in terms of getting it built and driving on it," Parsons said.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), another supporter, said: "The news today offers a lot of hope to people who have been working very hard for the [intercounty connector] over the years and to the people fed up more every day with traffic congestion."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called selection for fast-track review "a big deal . . . a major step."