Michael S. Smith doesn't live near the proposed intercounty connector. He doesn't work near it. The Southern Maryland resident figures he'll probably never even drive on the highway that would cut across Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
But whenever he ponders the project's $2.4 billion price tag, sometimes while he's stuck on the clogged and aging roads around his home, Smith grows irate.
"When are the folks in Annapolis going to pay attention to the roads down here?" said Smith, 48, whose 50-minute daily commute takes him from Dunkirk in Calvert County to Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's. "Everyone on the outskirts," he said, is cheated by the connector deal.
He is not alone. Disgruntled commuters and lawmakers across the state are increasingly fearful that the east-west connector may soak up so much of the state's federal highway money that it delays badly needed transportation projects elsewhere.
"There will be dozens of projects that will never see the light of day because of the intercounty connector," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation and a supporter of the project. "After the ICC, there will just be no money."
More than $30 billion worth of unfunded projects across the state -- from highway upgrades on the Eastern Shore to new bypasses in Western Maryland -- could face delays or might never be built because of the connector's drain on funding, Franchot estimated.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan vigorously denied that the connector would delay other projects. He said more than $1 billion of the highway's costs will be covered by toll revenue and new funding sources.
"It is not a zero-sum game," he said.
Some lawmakers, however, are not so sure. One of the most controversial parts of the project's financing is a plan to issue $750 million of a relatively new kind of bond that would be paid off with future federal highway funds over the next 12 years.
The General Assembly voted this spring to limit how much the state could borrow using this mechanism. Still, as much as 18.5 percent of annual federal highway funds received over that period would be committed to paying off the bonds, known as Garvee bonds, said David Juppe, senior operating budget manager for the General Assembly's Office of Policy Analysis.
It's hard to pin down what projects might be affected. The state's $12.3 billion highway plan includes 123 new projects. Scores of others are waiting to be added.
"If the ICC hadn't been built, you probably would have seen a lot of other smaller projects being funded," Juppe said. "But it's hard to say which projects those would be."
In some of the rural areas of the state that are rapidly transforming into bedroom communities, many lawmakers say that suburban counties near Washington and Baltimore are getting more than their fair share of the state's transportation funding.
"Sometimes you get the feeling that if we ask for a couple million dollars, it's like asking for the sky," said House Minority Leader George C. Edwards (R-Garrett), who said his Western Maryland district is slated to get its first major transportation project in 30 years.
Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's) said even outer-rim Washington suburbs -- such as his district in Southern Maryland -- don't receive enough traffic improvements because inner counties use up the funding. A bill to fund a study of mass transit in Southern Maryland that he sponsored was vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). A project to improve the aging Thomas Johnson Bridge, the only link between Calvert and St. Mary's counties, remains on the list of unfunded long-term plans.
As he glanced at headlines that described hours-long tie-ups on the region's roads, Dyson said it often felt as if such rapidly developing areas as Southern Maryland were being forgotten.
"It seems to me they're taking care of the metro areas at the expense of the rural areas," he said.
Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said it makes political sense for Ehrlich to focus on transportation projects in the close-in suburbs of Washington. Ehrlich has strong support among the more conservative rural parts of the state, but he needs to court liberal voters in Montgomery and Prince George's, Walters said.
"If he could toss them a bone like the ICC, it certainly may pay him some political dividends," Walters said.
Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) said politics has nothing to do with the governor's support for the connector. It needs to be built because it is the most pressing transportation priority in the state, he said, even if it draws potential funding from other projects in the state.
"There is no question that it does stretch us and that it does give us less opportunity in some of the areas in the state," he said. "But it's imperative that we do it."
Stoltzfus said he will be watching closely to make sure an important project in his Eastern Shore district -- the widening of Route 13 -- continues moving forward without significant delay.
"We understand it's going to take some time," he said. "Would I like to have it done next year? You bet I would. But I understand that with limited funds . . . you can't get everything you want right now."
Some Democrats blame Ehrlich for the delays, saying the governor has not committed adequate money for the state's strained transportation system, while Republicans say such criticism is just "an attempt to bad-mouth the governor."
None of that matters much to Smith as he navigates up and down Route 4, the only major thoroughfare in Calvert County, which can seem more like a parking lot than a road during rush hour. Sometimes he thinks things are so bad that the state will never be able to fix Southern Maryland's transportation woes.
"I think we're down here by ourselves," he said with a sigh.