By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
7:51 PM EDT, October 28, 2011
Next month's opening of the main section of the Intercounty Connector linking Interstate 95 with Interstate 270 in Montgomery County is expected to have significant effects on Baltimore's economy as it brings the state's richest job and commercial market a half-hour closer to its largest city.
The debut of the new section Nov. 22 will close the gap between the already opened western section of the ICC and I-95 in Prince George's County. Unlike the first section, which has been mostly used for local traffic, the opening of the new stretch is expected to bring immediate benefits to many Baltimore-area drivers for whom the trip to Rockville or Gaithersburg has long been a traffic nightmare.
Anirban Basu, chief executive of the Sage Policy Group in Baltimore, said the impact of the $2.6 billion ICC could be "profound" on this region.
"It will allow Baltimoreans to access commercial opportunities in the Washington area in ways that have not previously been accessible," he said.
One of the key areas of opportunity, he said, will be for Baltimoreans seeking employment in the high-wage, technology-savvy I-270 corridor.
"Right now, it's not practical to seek employment if one lives in Catonsville and wants a job in Bethesda or Rockville because of the traffic," he said. "Now the accessibility of jobs in the Washington area is significantly enhanced by the ICC."
With the aid of favorable weather this year, construction of the main section is coming in on time, if not a bit early. A section extending the eastern end to U.S. 1 has been deferred, but the portion opening next month is the important one for an improved connection between Baltimore and Montgomery County.
The state estimates the trip from Laurel to Gaithersburg on local roads to be about 47 minutes. Using the ICC, it's expected to take only about 17 minutes. Baltimore-to-Gaithersburg travelers will experience that time savings.
But with greater access will also come higher costs — and drivers across the state will begin feeling those next week. One of the main reasons the Maryland Transportation Authority is imposing significant toll increases starting Tuesday – which will, among other things, bump the cost of using the three Baltimore Harbor crossings from $2 to $3 each way – is that the bills for building the ICC are coming due.
Approval of the ICC came during the 2003-2007 administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. after almost a half-century of wrangling over the economic and social impacts of building the 18-mile road. One key decision that cleared the way for approval was to make the highway a toll road, which let state officials avoid having to raise money for construction by seeking a gas tax increase. When he took office in 2007, Gov. Martin O'Malley essentially left the ICC decision and financing plans in place.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, noted that she and other environmentalists warned that building the ICC would eventually result in higher tolls.
"There's scant joy in saying 'I told you so,'" Schmidt-Perkins said. "We need to learn from this and declare it the last highway, move on and go toward better planning."
Those who start using the ICC on Nov. 22 will enjoy almost a two-week respite from paying tolls. Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley announced Friday that the entire length of the ICC — now formally known as Route 200 — will be toll-free from Nov. 22 through Dec. 4.
On Dec. 5, users of the ICC will pay tolls at the same rates as previously charged on the section between Interstate 370, a short feeder leading to I-270, and Georgia Avenue. Those tolls come to 25 cents a mile at peak times — 6 a.m.-9 a.m. and 4 p.m.-7 p.m. weekdays. The rate is 20 cents off-peak and 10 cents overnight. Those rates come to a total of $1.60 to $4, depending on time of day, for those who travel the full length of the highway open in December.
Tolls are charged in both directions, and there is no commuter rate, as there is for older state toll facilities.
Harold Bartlett, executive secretary of the transportation authority, said he can't say for sure how long the tolls will remain at that level.
"We'll review the traffic volume every three months," he said. Bartlett said the authority is projecting that after the new section opens, about 25,000 vehicles will use the toll road each day, a number he said could rise to 35,000 in six to12 months.
The tolls are now set at the low end of a range set by the authority's board before the first section opened in February. It allows the executive secretary to raise tolls on 10 days' notice — to as much as 35 cents a mile in the case of peak-hour tolls. Any increases beyond the existing range would require public hearings and a board vote.
Whatever the amount, motorists will have the consolation of never having to slow for a tollbooth on the all-electronic highway. Tolls will be collected either by E-ZPass detectors or by cameras that will record the license plates of cars without E-ZPass and send a bill in the mail. Drivers of cars billed by mail will face a 50 percent surcharge to cover the extra costs.
In theory, users of the ICC will never face traffic-related backups because tolls will be increased to levels that will keep demand from exceeding the capacity of the road. Bartlett said it will be a matter of years, not months, before the authority has to face that issue.
Bartlett said paving has been completed. Tasks that remain include hanging signs, installing guardrails, putting the final touches on the all-electronic toll collection system and painting lane stripes.
"The highway's beautiful," Bartlett said. "It appears as if it's a highway through a park."
For opponents, that was one of the main objections to the ICC. It does in fact cut through several parks and sensitive stream valleys, though the state has spent hundreds of millions on projects to mitigate the environmental damage.
"I can't think of any other project that's paid this much attention to the environment," Bartlett said.
Schmidt-Perkins contends that the highway is still a blow to the Chesapeake Bay.
"There's no way to pave 18 miles of asphalt without causing problems, and where we try to mitigate that, it's just reducing the harm," she said.
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