ANNAPOLIS – A controversial highway project in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties moved one step closer to reality Thursday when federal transportation officials gave it fast-track status for environmental study.
The Inter-county Connector was one of six projects selected for accelerated review by U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. Those projects were among 70 proposals submitted by governors and local officials nationwide.
ICC proponents, including Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, hailed the announcement as critical to the needs of Marylanders, but opponents said the streamlined study would overlook environmental concerns.
“Despite broad public support, not only haven’t we been able to get this road built, we haven’t even been able to give the road a fair assessment,” Duncan said in a written statement. “(This) decision will finally make it possible to fully evaluate the project.”
An accelerated study can cut in half the time spent reviewing environmental factors like wetland impact and water quality. Specifically, it allows various agencies to conduct their own assessments concurrently, rather than waiting for one department to finish before another begins.
The ICC, which would connect Interstate 270 with Interstate 95, has been 40 years in the making. Conceived during the 1960s, various efforts have been halted or stalled for political as well as environmental reasons.
Former Gov. Parris Glendening stopped the state’s environmental review in 1999, citing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s analysis of disruption to local ecosystems.
But the state study had concluded that average travel between I-270 and I- 95 would be cut by 45 percent, traffic volumes on the Capital Beltway would drop by 21,100 cars per day and 11,900 cars would be taken off lower portions of I- 270.
The proposed superhighway would cut through Burtonsville, Colesville Manor, Fairland, Norbeck, Spencerville, and several other communities in eastern Montgomery County, and end in Laurel in Prince George’s County.
Both Gov. Robert Ehrlich and his opponent last fall, then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, supported its resurrection. Ehrlich earmarked $2 million this year for the State Highway Administration to resume planning.
“The governor is very pleased with the decision,” said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich. “It’s good for families, it’s good for business and it’s a big win for Maryland.”
However, the project is under fire from some lawmakers in Montgomery County.
County Councilman Phil Andrews wrote Mineta in December, saying the ICC could cause too much damage for a fast-track study.
On Thursday, Andrews was not pleased.
“These interests want the $1.2 billion ICC fast-tracked because they know that time and truth are their enemies,” Andrews said in a written statement. “Rushing the highway through the environmentally-destructive Bush Administration before people learn all the facts is their strategy.”
One Montgomery County lawmaker praised the decision.
“That road needs to be built,” said Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery. “Fast-tracking isn’t eliminating any review, but making those reviews simultaneous. It was a terrific decision by the White House.”
Environmental advocates say otherwise.
“This won’t reduce congestion, it’s not going to improve air quality and it goes through protected areas,” said Gigi Kellett, spokeswoman for the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. “They’re going to keep asking the question until they get the answer they want.”
Capital News Service writer Dan Genz contributed to this report.