Back when the Beltway was just a thought and Seven Locks Road was gravel and Harry Truman was president, planners came up with the intercounty connector, a highway that would link I-270 in Montgomery County with U.S. 50 in Prince George's County.

Half a century later, the population has tripled, and there's just a tad more traffic around here, yet no east-west highway links I-270 with I-95.

In the past couple of decades, Maryland has built dozens of miles of highway around Baltimore but only two miles of new road in the Washington suburbs. The intercounty connector (ICC) has become a vehicle for politicians to show allegiance to smart growth (ex-governor Parris Glendening) or to swear to long-suffering commuters that they'll get some relief (Gov. Bob Ehrlich, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan).

Every decade or so, the ICC Wars flare anew. They're about to blow big-time. Ehrlich and Duncan intend to start construction before their battle for governor heats up in 2006. (Duncan first faces Baltimore's mayor in the Democratic primary.)

Last week, in an American Legion hall in Laurel, the state put on an impressive show for citizens who wanted to see how the 18-mile, $1.7 billion road would change their lives. State engineers and PR folks walked residents through mounds of detail, but the bottom line was that the state, while pretending to study whether to build the road, is intent on laying down a smooth new stream of concrete.

That's what seems to rub folks the wrong way. The money Jim Ludlam and his wife made selling their condo in Montgomery let them buy a house in Prince George's. Now he commutes to Baltimore, and she spends an hour each morning doing the neighborhood weave to get to work in Bethesda.

They're exactly the kind of people for whom the ICC is meant. But Ludlam remains on the fence. A new highway would boost his property value and might ease his wife's commute, but "it's going to make Prince George's more of a bedroom community to Montgomery. There's huge potential around the Metro stations in Prince George's, which would help our tax base, but not if everyone's driving to the good jobs in Montgomery."

Ludlam came to the meeting hoping to find his government conducting an open inquiry; instead, he says, "All the agencies you would think would be impartial are politically skewed, and that's frustrating."

Earl Center, who raises horses and cattle on his 16-acre farm in Spencerville in Montgomery's northeastern corner, recently learned that his land is smack in the path of one proposed route for the ICC. He came to find out if the state is going to take his land, and he left knowing nothing new.

"They're talking about taking the land I bought to retire on," he says. "I've still got my Browning shotgun. Maybe I have to use that."

Emotions aside, Center says: "There's no question we need a road. But they should have built it 40 years ago. You can't stop progress, but this should have been done before these communities grew up. It's too late now."

Building a road is almost impossible in the face of formidable forces aligned against doing anything:

Environmentalists are up in arms about the fate of the brown trout that live in Paint Branch. Residents of neighborhoods such as Longmeade, which was built on both sides of the ICC right of way, fear the severing of their community, cutting children off from friends and schools. Smart growth advocates say the ICC would steer development away from Prince George's 13 underdeveloped Metro stations and toward the already congested I-270 corridor.

Yet the argument for the ICC is also powerful: Seen from the sky, Montgomery County looks like no other American suburb. It is a collection of wedges of open space dividing corridors of development -- with no major roads save the Beltway and 270. The design gives the county its gentle, green feel; it also accounts for its gummed-up roads.

The ICC would make a lot of sense but for the fact that too much has happened since it was planned. Sure, the road has been on planning maps forever, but that doesn't negate the fact that the path has become a cherished park. In the minds of residents, the ICC right of way is just one more wedge of green, and they won't give it up without a fierce fight.