GAITHERSBURG, MD (AP) Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich wasted little time before breaking ground for the Intercounty Connector (ICC) on May 30, less than 18 hours after federal officials approved plans for the 18-mi. highway.
Ehrlich and other state and regional officials hoisted shovels filled with dirt from a meadow in Montgomery County during a ceremonial groundbreaking near the site where the highway will begin. The Federal Highway Administration gave its final approval for the project in a 120-page report May 29 after an extensive environmental review.
The governor said the six-lane roadway would reduce traffic congestion and travel times on the Capital Beltway between Interstate 270 and Interstate 95.
“It will give back thousands of hours of time to our constituents,” Ehrlich said.
He said the nine interchanges and a single intersection located along the route between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will ease congestion at approximately 40 key points around suburban Washington.
The ICC was first proposed in 1950, but it has faced stiff opposition from environmentalists as well as concerns over its cost. Representatives from 28 state and federal agencies and environmental groups held more than three dozen lengthy meetings since Ehrlich took office to come up with a $270-million environmental remediation plan. Projects include wetlands restoration, reforestation and more than 11 mi. of hike and bike trails.
The route starts west of Interstate 370, and runs eastward through Montgomery County for 16 mi., before ending in Laurel, 2 mi. into Prince George’s County.
“The opponents couldn’t stop it and we need it,” said John Townsend, a spokesman of Triple-A Mid-Atlantic, which has supported the project. The highway is expected to handle approximately 85,000 vehicles a day, including 4,400 buses.
The project will be built as a toll road with drivers paying an estimated $7 to $10 a day for roundtrip commutes. Opponents said tolls would deter drivers from using the ICC.
“The toll highway does nothing to reduce congestion on the Beltway, I-270 , or I-95,” said Chris Carney, a spokesman of the Sierra Club’s Washington, D.C., chapter.
The organization was among several groups that have opposed the project for years under the banner of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
“This will actually add congestion to Connecticut and Georgia avenues which are two major commuter routes into Washington, D.C.,” said Brian Henry, a spokesman of the Audubon Naturalist Society.
He said it would be better to use the $2.4 billion earmarked for the ICC to expand the Metrorail mass transit system or improve existing roads.
A handful of protesters showed up to heckle Ehrlich and other project supporters during the groundbreaking ceremony. They included residents of the nearby Cashell Estates development. The approved route is expected to run right through the subdivision, eliminating approximately 16 homes.
“This has been sold as a congestion relief measure, but it’s actually a real estate overdevelopment project,” said Roger Metcalf, who has lived in Cashell Estates for 26 years. Metcalf warned it would increase suburban sprawl in sections of both counties.
Construction is expected to begin this fall, with portions of the roadway opening throughout 2010.