Disputed connector road finds momentum

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.

"These people said chopping the tops off mountains and dropping them in rivers in West Virginia wasn't against federal law," said Steve Caflisch, transportation chairman for the Sierra Club in Maryland, referring to an EPA decision last year to relax rules on mountaintop mining. "Counting on this agency, particularly if they do an expedited review, is hard."

But Charles R. Gougeon, the state biologist in charge of Central Maryland, said there are ways to build the highway while increasing the brown trout population. Careful study would be needed, he cautioned, but it could be done.

State officials say the highway is essential - to ease the daily snarls on the Capital Beltway, to connect Montgomery County businesses with Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the port of Baltimore, and to reduce air pollution by getting traffic moving again.

"A man approached me in the grocery store the other day and said the ICC would allow him to spend an extra 45 minutes a day with his children," Flanagan said. "I am very empathetic to people like that who want to spend more time with their family and less time sitting in traffic congestion."

Opponents acknowledge they are outnumbered and losing momentum. The chief reason: traffic congestion in the Washington area, which recently was rated third worst in the country, behind only that in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A recent morning spent flying over Montgomery County in the county's traffic plane vividly illustrated the congestion that polls show has become the No. 1 concern of residents. By 7:15, the outer loop of the Capital Beltway was four thick lanes of headlights that stretched to the visible horizon.

"It's just every morning," said the plane's pilot, Eddie Vendetti. "It's sheer volume. There's no accident. There's nothing we can do to help that situation."

He turned the plane north and, after a few miles, found the corridor that has been preserved for the ICC. In some parts, it's a thin ribbon of brown and green hemmed tight by development. Elsewhere, it's mile-wide swaths of forest and stream.

Frustrated drivers

For some frustrated commuters, the highway can't come soon enough. Jeanne Riley, who lives in North Baltimore and works in Rockville, has seen her one-way commute increase from 65 minutes to almost two hours in the past decade. She has given up on the Capital Beltway and instead takes side streets between I-95 and her job at Human Genome Sciences.

"I've probably tried 10 or 12 routes to find the least traveled option, but there aren't any anymore," said Riley, who was featured by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan at a news conference this month. "For a while, if you changed your route, you could find a way others weren't using. Now any of the 12 routes I take, it takes me an hour and 50 minutes at least."

Duncan cruised to re-election last fall with an aggressive $10 billion plan to combat congestion, including building the Intercounty Connector. He used his huge campaign account to sweep into office a pro-ICC slate of County Council members.

"Whether you were for or against the ICC became a symbol of where you stood on traffic congestion relief," Duncan said. "It was an easy way for people to understand the issue."

It was smart politics, opponents say, but also a fraud. They contend the road will not ease congestion because it will induce more people to drive, bring more cars into the county and prompt new development.

Nevertheless, the ICC's supporters now include the governor, the county executive and most of the County Council, and the county's legislative delegation. It's hard to find a politician left in the state who opposes the highway.

Phil Andrews is one of them. The Montgomery County councilman was re-elected despite being challenged by a pro-ICC candidate who spent twice as much money on the campaign.

"We need to control growth better, and unless we do that, it doesn't matter how many roads you build because you'll fill them up as fast as you can build them," Andrews said. "If you were designing a road to do maximum damage to the environment, you couldn't have designed a better road than the ICC."

But last month, when the Montgomery County Council voted on whether to endorse the road, Andrews found himself on the losing end, 6-3.