Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan may be political rivals most days, but yesterday they stood shoulder to shoulder as Ehrlich announced that his efforts to build the intercounty connector were barreling forward.
"The ICC has never been a partisan issue," Ehrlich told a small gathering of reporters, after thanking Duncan for standing with him. "It's about quality of life."
For decades, there was no more divisive political issue in Maryland than the proposal to build a highway that would cross creeks and woodlands and cut through sprawling residential growth areas in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
But among elected state and local leaders, those battle lines appear largely to have faded. In 2002, strident opponents of the $2.4 billion highway project lost their majority on the Montgomery County Council, which generally has become more receptive to development. Another crucial opponent, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), served out his two terms and left office the same year.
Now, Ehrlich (R) has backing from most quarters, even finding a rare patch of common ground with the two Democrats vying to unseat him in 2006 -- Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley -- as well as key Democratic leaders in the Maryland General Assembly.
That support, coupled with close ties to the Bush administration that helped put the project on the fast track for regulatory approval, puts Ehrlich in position to deliver on a highway construction project that has been on the planning books since 1950.
"I think the weight of those forces may have created just the right confluence of events to finally see this built," said Sidney Kramer (D), a former Montgomery County executive who said the highway project was the first item on the agenda when he was elected to the County Council in 1969.
"If ever it had a chance to move, it is now," Kramer said yesterday. "Now is the hour."
The only active opposition coming from an official body is centered in Prince George's, where the County Council has made clear its distaste for the costly project. The council, which has pushed for transportation money to be used to improve Metro stations, passed a resolution in 2003 opposing the connector.
"We have other transportation priorities that this doesn't address, and it just makes it easier for jobs to locate in Montgomery County," said Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), the council's vice chairman. "The [Ehrlich] administration is just trying to treat Prince George's County as a second-class county."
A number of state lawmakers have expressed unease about dedicating so much of the federal highway money Maryland receives to the suburban connector.
Strident opponents of the proposal said yesterday that they have recognized that the tenor of the political debate has shifted, painting them more as a David against a Goliath of arrayed interests and elected leaders. But as they chanted slogans and waved signs behind the governor, they said they refused to bow out.
"We've watched the political pendulum swing a couple times now over the years," said Greg Smith, a Takoma Park activist who said his efforts to fight the highway are becoming a lifetime endeavor. "We hope it can swing back in the right direction once the facts are out there."
For many opponents, hope rests with the power of the courts to intervene. Blair G. Ewing (D), a former Montgomery council member and ICC opponent who was unseated in 2002, said he is certain that environmental groups will challenge the methods Ehrlich's administration has used to seek federal approval of the project.
"They don't take political contributions," Smith said of the groups.
However long the odds, many ICC opponents said that at a minimum, they want to deprive Ehrlich of the photo opportunity he has openly craved since shortly after his election in 2002: the shot of him sinking a shovel into soil to launch the construction of the project before next year's November election.
"Delay could be sufficient to keep Ehrlich from realizing his promise to have shovels in the ground by the fall of 2006," Ewing said. "There's hope that a new governor will be elected who will be less committed to it than he is."
That is not likely to be Duncan, Ewing said, given the county executive's longtime support of the highway project. Ewing and other opponents said yesterday that they are getting behind O'Malley.
But O'Malley has said nothing to signal to opponents that he is with them.
"He supports the ICC, and he wants to see it built as part of a statewide strategy," said Steve Kearney, the mayor's spokesman.
Still, protesters are eager to derail Ehrlich's efforts and brought placards decrying environmental degradation and developer influence to Veirs Mill Road and Route 28 yesterday. Their lack of political clout was evident when they negotiated with state police to designate protest space along the roadway. As soon as it was cordoned off, Ehrlich's aides shifted his podium 90 degrees to cut protesters out of the frame of news cameras.
Ehrlich did not seem to mind the occasional interruptions of the ICC critics' chants.
"We'll listen to the voices of the past here for a minute," the governor said, pausing his remarks. "The vocal minority has won for too long. Today, the view of the vast majority finally wins."
Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.