Proposed Intercounty Connector Could Cost Up to $2.1B

Wed November 17, 2004 - Northeast Edition
Stephen Manning

GREENBELT, MD (AP) The cost of the proposed Intercounty Connector in suburban Washington could be as high as $2.1 billion because of inflation and measures to limit the environmental impact of the highway, state transportation officials said Nov. 3.

That figure is an increase over earlier projections of $1.7 billion the state estimated it would cost to construct the 18-mi. (29 km) highway through northern Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

Approximately $270 million in environmental projects, such storm water management systems and longer bridges to span wetlands, combined with inflation, helped drive the cost up.

Depending on which of two different routes the state chooses, the road is expected to cost between $1.8 billion to $2.1 billion, estimates that state planners billed as conservative. Inflation could add another $300 million over the next two years if work begins in the fall of 2006 as planners hope.

State Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan said the extra costs were meant to protect the environment in the region, which includes streams and watersheds, and prevent eventual run-off from reaching the Chesapeake Bay.

“It costs more to do it this way, but it is environmentally sensitive,” he said.

The revised cost estimate comes as the state prepares to release a report later this month reviewing the impact the road would have on the area’s ecosystem. A similar report was canceled in 1999 when Parris Glendening scrapped plans for the road, calling it an “environmental nightmare.”

Gov. Robert Ehrlich revived work on the highway when he took office in 2003, saying it was needed to reduce congestion in the Washington suburbs, especially on the Capital Beltway. State highway officials have since stressed the road would be built with the environment in mind, even suggesting the construction could help improve local waterways.

But Dolores Milmoe, of the Audubon Naturalist Society, said that the extra environmental projects were an attempt to “greenwash” what would be a major road running through the region.

“To try to tie this in with the Chesapeake Bay restoration doesn’t pass the straight face test,” she said.

Current plans call for the 18-mi. road linking I-270 and I-95 to be finished by 2010. It would be a toll road, with drivers paying electronically through systems like E-Z Pass. Rates would vary depending on the time of day — at rush hour the charge could be as high as 25 cents per mile. An estimated 300,000 trips would be made each day on the road.

The proposed environmental projects include a storm water system that runs water underground, cooling it by keeping the water away from sun light before it feeds into streams. That would prevent hot water from flowing into waterways, a potential hazard to trout populations.

Longer bridges would span streams without affecting the water or the banks, said Neil Pedersen, state highway administrator. One proposal calls for sinking the road and building a park over the top near a community to limit the impact on the neighborhood.

A recent University of Maryland report claimed the ICC would provide between $5 billion and $7 billion in benefits to the region through job creation and increased commerce.

The state proposes paying for the road through a mixture of bonds and federal money, including $1 billion in GARVEE bonds. Those bonds are repaid using future federal highway money and the Intercounty Connector GARVEE bonds would consume approximately 20 percent of Maryland’s allocation of highway money for the next 15 years.

Flanagan said the project can’t be delayed any further since every year adds $100 million in inflation for road materials and contractor costs.

But some lawmakers said they were still unsure about the increased cost and the impact the road would have on the area. Delegate Pauline Menes, D-Prince George’s, said she was worried about the impact the new road would have on traffic where it links with the busy U.S. Route 1 corridor.

“’There are a lot of unknowns here,” she said.