The first segment of the region's newest toll road, the Intercounty Connector, opened to traffic Wednesday morning, linking the Interstate 270 corridor with the Georgia Avenue corridor. The new highway's official designation is MD 200.
Motorists who try out the new toll road might be too busy cruising along at 55 mph to notice, but the highway is designed to be a real looker.
No ugly concrete-and-steel overpasses here, ICC officials say. Think earth tones, expansive arches and elegant curves along 7.2 miles of open asphalt.
The aesthetic details are designed to help the new highway, which will eventually span 18.8 miles between Gaithersburg and Laurel, blend into the landscape.
The first section stretches between I-270 and Norbeck Road, just east of Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring. When the tolls kick in March 7 after a two-week "free trial" period, passenger vehicles will be charged 60 cents to $1.45, depending on the time of day.
Concrete for ICC overpasses was poured into special forms and stained to look like stone. The stone theme carries to the sound walls, which come in four complementary finishes - some with concrete "stone" from top to bottom, some only with horizontal stone panels - depending on each wall's height and distance from motorists. The large rocks at the base of the piers holding up overpasses were chosen for their brownish hues.
Instead of just being gray, galvanized steel, sign structures and guardrails were painted brown. Rather than end in boring straight edges, the piers holding up the overpasses arch at the top, as do the steel girders supporting the overpasses' roadbeds. Major overpasses - in this first section, that's the Georgia Avenue bridge carrying traffic over the ICC and into Olney - have decorative lighting and fencing to make them "gateways" to communities.
Although designers focused primarily on making the highway structurally sound, ICC officials said, the cosmetic touches should create an unobtrusive feel.
"There are a lot of little details that people wouldn't necessarily pick up on," said Melinda Peters , the Maryland State Highway Administration's project director on the ICC's construction. "They don't add a lot to the cost of construction, but they add a lot to the look."
The stone finishes on sound walls face motorists, while most residents on the other side see a solid brown stucco. The walls are designed to blend in with back yards and neighborhoods through heavier landscaping, much of which remains to be planted this spring, she said.
The aesthetic elements added 1 to 2 percent to the first section's $478.7 million cost, Peter said.
However, environmental groups say no amount of attractive design can offset the ICC's destruction to Maryland's streams, wetlands and wildlife. Many residents along the highway's path say the design doesn't alleviate their concerns about the potential health effects of living and playing adjacent to a major highway that replaced parkland and a large swath of thick trees.
"While earth tones are great and a stone look to overpasses is fine, the environmental issue is the [storm-water] runoff from the road into the streams below those overpasses," said David Hauck, a Montgomery County resident and member of the Maryland Sierra Club's executive committee.
Highway experts say the ICC's design follows an engineering philosophy that took root about 20 years ago and is now accepted across the country: A road's design needn't be purely functional, as many built during the interstate construction boom of the 1950s and 1960s were.
"They just wanted them to be built as fast as possible," said Chung C. Fu, a civil engineering professor at the University of Maryland. "They didn't care about how they looked. It gradually came to people's minds that they didn't want them all to be dull-looking and all looking the same."
Maryland has been a leader in the aesthetics movement since the early 1990s, Fu said. He said he hasn't seen enough of the ICC to judge its visual appeal but noted the attractive curve of the steel "tubes" holding the highway signs during a tour. Fu said the costs for the ICC's aesthetic elements are in line with other projects.
Maryland adds visually appealing details to almost any new road project, said Robert Healy, a State Highway Administration deputy director who oversaw the ICC's overpass designs.
Healy, who also oversaw design work on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge's reconstruction, pointed to that span's soaring arches and its piers spaced far apart so that the structure feels open to the Potomac River. Its paint color, dubbed "monumental white," was chosen to complement the monuments of the nation's capital, Healy said.
"We're not talking about gold-plating the thing," Healy said, "just looking at the size and dimensions of a bridge and asking, 'Is this the best we can do here?' You do little touches, and then you're done."
Motorists won't see the ICC's signature design detail - a bridge with four concrete piers that arch over Rock Creek, about three miles west of Georgia Avenue. Designers came up with the arches, which became the project's logo, as a way to avoid building any piers in the creek bed, Peters said. Instead, the piers jut out from the creek's sloping banks.
Motorists passing amid the treetops 70 feet above the stream will be unaware of the arches, which will be seen only by hikers and horseback riders using the parkland below.