A coalition of powerful state leaders will attempt to block Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to sell off land intended for the proposed intercounty connector, keeping alive the possibility that the controversial highway might one day be built.
Two days after Glendening (D) sought to end a half-century of acrimonious debate by killing the highway proposal, the leaders of the state House and Senate joined two members of the powerful Board of Public Works in a counterattack.
Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said the highway right of way has taken years to assemble and should be preserved. Glendening ordered state agencies to sell off $25 million worth of property along one route proposed for the cross-county highway, which would link Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 north of the Capital Beltway.
More important, state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) and state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon (D) said they would vote against any proposal to sell land set aside for the highway. The two officials make up a majority on the three-member Board of Public Works, which would have to approve the sale of most if not all state-owned land acquired for the project.
"The general consensus is that the right of way should be kept," said Miller, whose county would contain the eastern portion of the proposed 18-mile road, known as the ICC. "It was not something that was easily put together, and it should not be easily sent asunder."
The high-level opposition came after Glendening attempted to kill the $1 billion project, saying further argument over the road would only waste time because federal environmental agencies would never approve it. The costly project would require some federal funds to construct.
The comments highlight how difficult it will be for Glendening to stop consideration of a project that has gained considerable support during its five decades on planning maps and could signal a showdown during the next session of the General Assembly over the governor's transportation strategy.
Miller and others urged the governor to change his mind and support the highway, as a task force appointed by Glendening recommended several months ago. In addition, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) has said he might attempt to buy the property to keep all options open, though the County Council yesterday vowed not to approve a penny for that effort. Most of the road would run through Montgomery.
As an alternative to the intercounty connector, the governor proposed spending $250 million on intersection, road construction and transit projects to alleviate mounting east-west traffic congestion in Washington's Maryland suburbs. But business leaders say that is not enough to solve the problem, while environmentalists complain that the construction proposed by Glendening would still damage wetlands and streams.
Glendening endorsed construction of the eastern and western portions of the highway along a route splitting the county. He plans to set aside the middle section for a park and transit way, which would require less land and have a smaller effect on the environment.
Several state leaders pledged yesterday to complicate those plans. Glendening has ordered state agencies to begin looking at the procedures for disposing of land along the ICC routes, purchased under a variety of agreements.
Much of the property would be offered first to the original owners at the original sale price plus interest. This could be a boon for several large residentials developers, who already own parcels along the proposed right of way and could have the first crack at adjacent property they sold to the state for the road.
But Robert Zarnoch, who serves as counsel to the General Assembly, said those sales would be subject to review. "One thing is clear," he said. "The Board of Public Works has to approve the sale or transfer of such property."
Opposition from Schaefer and Dixon, who sharply criticized the plan to sell the property, could keep the land in state hands for some time. Schaefer said the governor should abandon his plans at once.
"He ought to leave it alone until a new governor comes in and corrects his mistake," Schaefer said. "I would oppose any sale because Duncan knows more about his county than Glendening will ever know. I'll vote against any sale until Duncan says, `I give up.' "
Michael Morrill, Glendening's spokesman, rejected the criticism. "This is an attempt to keep the issue alive and revive debate," he said. "The governor'sanswer is we are ending the ICC, we're moving on and we're going to move the traffic. That's why we funded $250 million worth of improvements that will benefit everybody, no matter where they are stuck in traffic."
Taylor praised the governor for what he described as an "innovative" package of transportation projects to address congestion in Montgomery and Prince George's counties over the near term. But he said selling the ICC right of way would be "shortsighted."
"We should complete the other pieces of the highway project, put traffic on them and determine if the congestion problem has been solved," Taylor said. "If it has, we should sell the property. If it hasn't, future leaders will still be able to come to grips with the problem."
Glendening aides say there appear to be enough parcels along the route that could be easily transferred within state agencies -- perhaps designated as parkland -- to effectively break up the right of way. But that could antagonize legislative leaders whom Glendening needs to carry his agenda in the General Assembly next year.
"I'm hoping wiser heads will continue to meet and prevail on him to change his views," Miller said.