ROCKVILLE - The Ehrlich administration is pushing ahead with plans to build an 18-mile highway through the forests and across the streams of Montgomery County - a road that has been embraced by politicians and commuters but was twice rejected by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Fears that the proposed Intercounty Connector would foul the air, pollute the water, and spell the end for thousands of birds and fish have prevented construction for years. But the new administration is confident that the environmental hurdles can be cleared and that the $1.5 billion road can be built.

"We will find a way to build the ICC," said Robert L. Flanagan, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s nominee for transportation secretary. He met with state highway officials for several hours last week to plot strategy for building the road, which would connect Interstates 95 and 270 between Laurel and Rockville.

"We're just starting the journey," Flanagan said, "but the journey has begun."

Transportation officials are taking the small steps needed to build such a big road. They are developing forecasts for how many vehicles the ICC would carry and making plans for aerial photos and land surveys. Later, they will submit a new highway plan to the federal government.

To that end, Ehrlich and others are pushing the U.S. transportation secretary, Norman Y. Mineta, to choose the highway as one of five projects nationwide to be fast-tracked for review. That could shave two years off the construction timetable if the roadway is approved.

"We have more friends than we've ever had before," said state Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery Democrat. "I'm an environmentalist. I'm a member of the Sierra Club. But we want this to be built as soon as possible."

The Sierra Club, for the record, does not share that view. Club officials say the highway would harm the Chesapeake Bay, pollute air that is already too dirty, destroy brown trout spawning areas, lead to still more development and generally cause an environmental disaster.

Brown trout

A principal reason the EPA rejected Maryland's "master plan alignment" for the ICC twice in the past decade is the likelihood that it would wipe out all of the brown trout in the Paint Branch stream. The state stocked the stream and its tributaries between 1929 and 1944, and the trout have reproduced on their own ever since.

The foot-long fish live up to six years, weigh up to 10 pounds, and are considered by fishermen to be the smartest and most difficult to catch trout in the state - not to mention quite tasty. They are not native to the East Coast.

While their numbers have declined because of the recent drought, hundreds remain in the Paint Branch, and they need good water quality and clean stream bottoms to survive. Construction of the six-lane highway represents a clear threat to their habitat, environmentalists say.

In a 1997 analysis, the EPA said the highway would destroy at least 145 acres of parkland, rip through 22 acres of wetlands, cut across 77 streams and take the homes of 27 species of birds. The report said the highway "represents one of the largest wetland impacts reviewed by the EPA in Maryland in recent times" and urged the state to abandon the master plan route.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening responded by halting plans for the ICC, which had been in the works for 40 years. He said he wanted to end discussion of the roadway "once and for all."

But Ehrlich, like his opponent, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, campaigned on a pledge to build the road, and the state has revived the master plan proposal. There are two alternatives that would be less harmful to plants and wildlife, but they would take more homes and businesses than the master plan route, which has been saved from development.

The "Northern Alternative," for instance, would bulldoze up to 84 homes and businesses.

"That's a real consideration that any elected official has to take into account," Flanagan said. "To the extent that environmental laws overlook that consequence, that would have to be considered a shortcoming in the environmental laws."

He emphasized that the state would fulfill its legal requirements and said steps can be taken to build the master plan route without harm to the environment. The acting state highway administrator, Neil Pedersen, said in an interview that there would be changes in the proposed alignment to account for environmental concerns, but he declined to be more specific.

Still, environmentalists are outraged that the state is again planning for a route that was rejected in 1994 and 1997. And they fear that this time the outcome will be different. They are not encouraged by the Bush administration's decision to ease regulations on oil and gas drilling, pollution and logging.