By Stephen Manning
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
ROCKVILLE, MD (AP) Gov. Robert Ehrlich said July 11 the state has picked a route for the Intercounty Connector, a significant step toward construction of the 18-mi. east to west highway in northern Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
After a lengthy study, the state picked a route that largely follows a course that has been on regional planning maps since the 1960s. The highway was long debated but never built, in part because of fears over the effect it would have on the environment.
Ehrlich said the selected route was designed to mitigate potential harm to the environment and will include features that may improve the health of nearby streams, wetlands and animal habitats.
Speaking above approximately 25 protesters who disrupted his speech with chants and waved signs at a busy intersection in Rockville, Ehrlich said the project that has been stalled for decades will likely soon become reality.
“After 35 years, a viable alternative is here,” he said, backed by state and Montgomery County officials.
The State Highway Administration will now draft a final report on the environmental impact of the planned route for the $2.1-billion road, which would run through parts of Laurel, Burtonsville and Rockville.
That will be forwarded to the Federal Highway Administration this fall, which is expected to issue its final opinion on the project by the end of the year. If approved, work is slated to begin in the fall of 2006.
But environmental groups hinted they may file a lawsuit in a last-ditch bid to stop the project, which gained momentum after Ehrlich’s election in 2002. His predecessor, Parris Glendening, called off a study in 1999 of a route that followed a similar corridor as the one picked by the state this year. Glendening declared the 1999 road an “environmental nightmare.”’
Dolores Milmoe of the Audubon Naturalist Society said an earlier state study of the route showed it would not help alleviate traffic on several other east-west roads in the county. She contended that with the cost of paying back bonds used for construction, the road will cost $3 billion. And she scoffed at Ehrlich’s assertion the road could help the environment.
“Putting down an 18-mile strip of concrete is not going to help the environment,” she said.
The ICC is intended to give drivers a faster way to cut across the top of the Washington suburbs without having to drive on the congested Capital Beltway. Business leaders strongly support it, as do the majority of elected officials in Montgomery. But environmentalists and groups opposed to sprawl have long fought the road.
The state studied two general routes, each with its own variations, to determine the effect each would have on factors that included the environment, traffic, local residents and the regional economy. Planners also considered the effects of not building the road.
Both corridors would have began at U.S. Route 1 in the Laurel area and ended at Interstate 270 in Rockville. But each cut a different path through the upper eastern portion of Montgomery, in towns like Burtonsville.
The “southern route” picked by transportation officials cuts due west to Route 97. It largely follows a 300-ft. right of way that the state owns over most of that distance. Approximately 58 homes would be destroyed to make way for the road.
The so-called “northern route” would have shot a half-mile north of the master plan route after crossing I-95 in Laurel. The route would have woven through existing neighborhoods before meeting the master plan route at Route 97. Unlike the master plan proposal, the northern route had several variants and would have required the state to take 83 houses.
Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan said the northern route was passed over in part because it could have led to more development. It would have gone through less developed areas of the county, encouraging builders to construct new homes nearby, he said.
State officials have taken great pains to argue that the road can be built in a way that minimizes its impact on the environment. Ehrlich even said projects associated with the construction, such as stream rehabilitation and stormwater run-off management could be better for the region than if the road was not built.
For example, bridges would be built with longer spans over streams to minimize the footprint they leave. Silt-clogged streams would be straightened, allowing the water to flow more freely. Stormwater that now flows into streams, potentially harming fish, would be filtered. In all, Ehrlich said the state would spend $262 million in environmental projects connected with the highway.
“We believe we can achieve incredible amounts of environmental mitigation and betterment with this route,” he said.
However, in March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the southern route could cause harm to the environment, such as the region’s only reproducing population of brown trout in the Paint Branch stream. The EPA said it preferred the northern route, but warned that option also could pose some environmental risks.