IN 1950, THE National Capital Planning Commission first offered the idea of an "Outer Beltway," part of which would stretch between Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Now, 55 years after it was first conceived, this intercounty connector is showing signs that it might -- as early as next year -- cease to be just an idea and start to become an actual, tangible highway.

This week Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced that the state would proceed with the route almost exactly as laid out in the Montgomery County Master Plan decades ago. This came as a relief to many county residents, business owners and elected officials who had for so many years been making decisions with the master plan in mind. The details of the proposed route will be studied further over the next couple of months, and the final environmental impact statement should be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration in the fall.

When President Bush agreed to Mr. Ehrlich's request to "fast track" the connector, officials were freed from archaic procedures involving bureaucrats writing letters back and forth to work out every last detail over several years. Unlike in the past, the State Highway Administration did not come up with a draft environmental impact statement on its own -- a statement that other state and federal agencies would invariably find to be riddled with flaws. Instead, the SHA worked with, among others, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland departments of the Environment, Natural Resources and Planning to take care of problems as they arose. Not only did this mean moving through the process in just two years (speed that was previously unthinkable in this interminable saga), it also brought a stronger likelihood that the project will have the support of all the agencies involved.

Though faster, this dynamic approach does not mean compromising environmental standards, nor should it. In fact, the environmental mitigation plans call for restoration of streams -- even when those streams are in trouble because of development, not because of the connector -- and reforestation to create five times more parkland than is taken away. Engineers and planners worked together to propose longer bridges over waterways to minimize the impact on the wetlands and wildlife below.

These measures have not swayed the highway's most vocal opponents, and state officials are well aware that litigation is possible -- litigation that could slow progress back to a crawl. However, the past two years of intensive study have given officials time to ensure that the route and the environmental mitigation measures comply with federal and state regulations, offering the hope that any lawsuits will be dealt with expeditiously. It has already taken far too long for this promise -- around which entire communities have been created -- to be fulfilled.