In "The Lottery," Shirley Jackson's classic American short story, a community sacrifices the life of an innocent in the selfish belief that this act will ensure continued prosperity for the town.
People living in or near the path of the proposed intercounty connector (ICC) probably can identify with how the innocent victim in that story felt. The state and local governments and their fellow citizens have agreed that, for the good of Montgomery County, their homes and neighborhoods should be sacrificed to a monster highway.
A recent University of Maryland study, paid for by the Maryland State Highway Administration, predicts that building the east-west highway between Montgomery and Prince George's counties would bring billions of dollars of benefits and create thousands of jobs during the next 20 years. But the report is more sales brochure than science.
The politics of the highway dictate that the state highway agency has to be able to claim that any economic effect of the ICC would benefit Prince George's County more than it would Montgomery. So the agency commissioned a $300,000 study that coincidentally said just that. Problem solved.
But considering the source of the study -- the pro-ICC highway department -- its conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. And as Nobel laureate Niels Bohr said, "Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future."
Now and then the state's ICC Study Team mails out letters to people on or near the path of the proposed highway. These letters contain maps that show the section of the highway that will cross at or near the addressee's property. It's a typical government document, cold and clinical. The highway is represented by a big black line crossing many lighter gray lines that denote where people live.
"It has all the warmth and appeal of a summons," said one recipient of the mailing.
His map showed the ICC slashing through pristine areas to the west and crossing pastoral Emory Lane before bearing down on tiny Sycamore Lane and then continuing on to Georgia Avenue, south of Olney.
A drive along Emory Lane merged with a visit to Sycamore Lane is an eye-opener. The area has the look of New England and gives an impression of tranquility and comfort. It has spectacular trees, streams, springs, wildlife, wetlands -- and restful quiet.
The residents and nature have taken wonderful care of this preserve, and it shows. But the ICC map doesn't care about this. Apparently, Maryland feels nothing beats the charm of thousands of tons of steel and concrete and the glare of highway lights. Besides, sacrifices have to be made, and the peace of Emory Lane just happens to be one of them.
Although the Maryland State Highway Administration is the tip of the spear in the ICC campaign, state and local officials dictate the agency's approach. In the 2002 elections, candidates favoring the ICC were heavily funded by development industry campaign money.
Back then, among all the doubtful claims being made about how the ICC would reduce traffic congestion on major roads, the most doubtful was the assertion that traffic volume would decline at least 10 percent on the Beltway. Now, two years later, in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, the same officials who used that claim to help get themselves elected quietly have backed off that particular assertion. However, they remain adamantly pro-ICC, because the polls tell them that most Montgomery residents still want the highway and their neighbors be damned.
Ordinarily, groups that imperil the environment, menace neighborhoods and compromise decades of investment don't have a prayer in Montgomery County. But people's deep frustration with traffic has kicked the legs out from under that heritage. As Somerset Maugham noted, "You can't learn too soon that the most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency."
One encouraging sign is that some members of the General Assembly are beginning to realize that the proposed funding sources for the ICC are bad public finance. For example, Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore County), an influential member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, wants to limit the amount of bonds and other debt Maryland can take on. He does not like the idea of sacrificing the transportation needs of other parts of the state to build one $3 billion road -- the ICC. He also recognizes the folly of sacrificing dozens of neighborhoods to a road that is unlikely to deliver much relief to the road-bound. He's right on all counts.