A Maryland transportation panel is recommending that the state build a four-lane, east-west road connecting Prince George's and Montgomery counties and that it charge tolls that are set higher at rush hour to discourage congestion.
In its final report, to be delivered to Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) next month, the panel will urge that the intercounty connector be built as a parkway between Interstates 95 and 270 and that it include four lanes, rather than the six lanes previously envisioned.
Because the Glendening-appointed Transportation Solutions Group includes some of the nation's most respected experts on roads, transit and land use, its endorsement could give the connector renewed momentum. But in an illustration of the many remaining obstacles, the group came close to killing the project and ultimately did not reach agreement on perhaps the most vexing issue -- a route for the 20-mile road.
In the end, the majority agreed that environmental concerns were outweighed by the importance of linking the I-270 business corridor with Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the Baltimore port and Annapolis. Many members judged that attracting businesses to Montgomery County meant providing a direct route for employees and shipping companies using the airport.
"The important thing was to make the state a more cohesive one," said member Alan E. Pisarski, a transportation analyst. "It's simply a fact it's got to start working together to produce greater synergy."
The committee moved to include the connector in an ambitious package of regional transportation and planning proposals, including two new rail lines, expanded cross-county bus service and incentives such as variable property taxes and lower mortgages to encourage housing near transit lines.
The fate of this package ultimately rests with the governor. He established the committee after he abandoned his longtime support for the connector last year, and the resulting uproar threatened to undercut his bid for reelection.
Planners have long seen the connector as an expressway of at least six lanes open to all traffic, including tractor-trailers. The scaled-back design emerged after members, exasperated by the daunting regulatory obstacles, stunned many observers in December by suggesting that the connector be abandoned.
The plan was resurrected through the quiet efforts of Thomas B. Deen, chairman of the Transportation Solutions Group, and intense lobbying by advocates in the business community, ultimately winning support from 11 of the group's 15 members.
Whether any road can pass muster with the environmental laws that have stymied previous proposals remains to be seen.
The group's most notable finding after more than a year of study was that no one strategy -- and perhaps no combination of strategies -- can eliminate the wearying traffic jams of the Maryland suburbs.
"You've got to push in all directions, and even then, it might be futile," said Deen, former chief of the national Transportation Research Board. "We're not going to be able to solve congestion."
No Cure for Congestion
That conclusion seemed particularly true for the connector. Though many members accepted the economic arguments, some were dismayed to learn that -- as a state environmental study pointed out -- none of the proposed connector routes would cut congestion on the Capital Beltway, I-270 or I-95.
This projection was but one piece of sobering news the committee heard in December.
Panel members also got a grim assessment from federal and state officials of the environmental damage that the road's favored route would do to Montgomery County streams and parkland.
"At the end of the meeting, a lot of us looked at each other and said, `Wow, from what we've heard today, we can't build' " along the master plan route, said one member, William Millar of the American Public Transit Association.
Even Francis B. Francois, a former head of the national association of state highway officials who is considered a highway-friendly member, concluded that the roadway was a non-starter.
"Perhaps it is time to reconsider," he recalls saying.
In the new year, Deen set out to piece together a consensus for the road. He talked with each of the members, several by telephone from his home on Kent Island, others in person.
Would fewer lanes make it more acceptable? What if it used variable tolls to reduce traffic?
Deen said he was motivated not by any predisposition to the connector but by a determination that his panel reach a conclusion before its mandate expired. "I was trying to see if there was any compromise, any flexibility, to allow there to be, if not unanimity, at least a majority," he said.
Deen arranged for proponents to make their case. At a meeting in February, Gus Bauman, a land-use lawyer and former planning commission head in Montgomery County, was given an hour to argue for the necessity of the road in preserving the area's economic health. Representatives from the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, Potomac AAA and county economic development offices also spoke. And Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) offered written endorsements, Deen said.
The declaration from Duncan, whose county would hold most of the connector, was crucial. He had earlier expressed his backing for the road privately. But county staff members, aware of faltering support for the proposal, counseled him that it was time to come out publicly. And though the Glendening administration was officially neutral, Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari also contacted the governor to urge the same, according to Duncan.
"If you're going to make a statement, make it now," Duncan recalled being told by both his staff and Porcari. "If you do it a month from now, it'll be too late."
By the end of the February meeting, the tide had turned. An informal poll of the members produced a 9 to 4 vote in favor of "some sort of limited-access east-west road."
The final document, which members are scheduled to sign this week, recommends a four-lane highway with a median reduced from 75 feet to 12 feet. The road would have limited interchanges to discourage the development of neighboring open spaces, provide room for a bicycle path and be well landscaped.
It also would feature electronic tolls that would vary by time of day and amount of traffic to ensure free flow. It would ban tractor-trailers but permit single-unit trucks, such as those used by Federal Express and United Parcel Service.
Perhaps the most daunting task is still undone -- picking a route.
The preferred master-plan route is deemed by many panelists as having insurmountable environmental problems. But any alternate northern route also would face grave environmental challenges and opposition from property owners who had been assured that no road would ever be carved through their communities.
The panel concluded that mapping a route was better left to local and state planning experts.
And so, more than a year after he volleyed the controversy to the group, the ball bounces back to Glendening. The committee's 15-month deliberations successfully defused the connector as an issue in the gubernatorial campaign last year. Whether they have brought a half-century of often nasty wrangling any closer to consensus is still unclear, especially since majorities on both the Montgomery and Prince George's county councils oppose the road.
And opponents of the highway may continue to press their contention that the committee was stacked in favor of road proponents.
"We've taken a small step toward a way out of this," said committee member Robert Dunphy, research director at the Urban Land Institute and a supporter of the connector. Even if the governor does decide to proceed, he said, "It'll still be a continual struggle."