ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly cleared the way for construction of the controversial Inter-county Connector, approving funding that some lawmakers had said would prevent other transportation projects from being built just as the session closed for the year.
Ground is expected to be broken next year on the 18-mile toll road, estimated to cost as much as $3 billion, which is designed to connect Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg and Interstate 95 in Laurel.
Lawmakers approved an administration plan to use GARVEE bonds, to be repaid by future federal highway funding and tolls from the ICC and other roadways in the state, with some changes.
Use of the GARVEE bonds engendered the most opposition, with three delegates who supported building the ICC — Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, Murray Levy, D-Charles, and Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford — among the most vocal critics. They said they felt the administration’s funding plan was fundamentally flawed, putting at risk both the state’s bond rating and critical capital projects, including other transportation projects and schools.
Ultimately a compromise was reached, reducing the administration’s requested $1 billion GARVEE bond contribution to $750 million, with $265 million coming from the general fund for the next six years.
This repays the transportation fund money borrowed in recent years “to help Ehrlich hold the budget together with Scotch tape and bubble gum,” Franchot said in a recent interview.
“A lot of legislators complained about general funds going to the ICC, but we reminded them that they were repaying the (highway) trust fund,” he said.
Additional funding will come from tolls from the seven toll bridges and tunnels in the state, and from tolls on the completed ICC, according to Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Department of Transportation. ICC tolls are expected to pay for $400 million to $600 million of the projected cost, he said.
The ICC has been a highly contentious issue for years. Former Gov. Parris Glendening abandoned the road when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it would have unacceptable environmental impacts.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich supported building the road even before he became governor. Robert Flanagan, his secretary of transportation, had the State Highway Administration redo the EPA-required Draft Environmental Impact Statements examining two possible routes, one a long-proposed southern path, the other a more northerly alternative, and the option of building no road at all.
The ICC’s cost arises in part from design features, such as elevating large stretches of the roadway, to address environmental objections raised by the EPA during consideration of the road in the late 1990s.
In spite of those efforts, in late February the regional director of the EPA told the State Highway Administration that the proposed southern route will cause severe environmental damage. But the alternative northern route also has serious environmental consequences, the EPA letter said.
When asked earlier this month, Ehrlich said that building the ICC will help the environment.
“Part of the reason the project is so expensive and part of the reason we’ve gone to such lengths in our communication effort has been to let people know that a lot of undue damage was inflicted by then-existing (’70s, ’80s, ’90s era) technology and then-existing land development policies along the right of way,” Ehrlich said.
“We can do an awful lot of environmental good by building this road, and obviously help clean our air, by taking the wait time off of (Interstate) 495,” he said.
ICC opponents have repeatedly noted that the State Highway Administration’s own environmental statement said that traffic overcrowding on the Beltway will not be relieved by building the ICC, and predicts that traffic in many regions will actually be made worse.
Franchot dismisses Ehrlich’s pro-environmental statements as posturing.
“He favors sprawl. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words mass transit come out of his mouth. He doesn’t think of the environment as other than a campaign slogan.”