The opening of the first phase of the Intercounty Connector is not expected before October, but Maryland is preparing for its debut by ordering 18 "clean diesel" commuter buses for eventual transit service on the highway.

The Maryland Department of Transportation's recently awarded $9.1 million contract for purchase of the buses from Motor Coach Industries of Schaumburg, Ill., will go to the state Board of Public Works for approval next week.

Rather than have the Maryland Transit Administration operate the buses, the department plans to hand the job to a private contractor in an arrangement similar to that on its existing commuter bus routes. A bid solicitation is expected next year.

The state is planning to start four bus routes to travel the ICC. Two will begin when the first phase - between Georgia Avenue and Interstate 370 - opens. Those will travel between Gaithersburg and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and Gaithersburg and Fort Meade. Both will use the open segment of the ICC and local roads until the toll road connects with I-95 in late 2011 or early 2012. Early plans call for the buses to make three or four stops between the Gaithersburg Park and Ride and their destinations. The state is considering connections with the MARC Penn Line.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley said bus routes had been in the works for the ICC - a controversial highway that was delayed for decades by environmental objections - since early in the planning process.

"We're hopeful that we'll have very good ridership," she said. "Obviously, we expect to reap great benefits when we open the entire ICC."

Swaim-Staley said she believes there will be heavy demand among Montgomery County residents for bus rides to BWI and Fort Meade.

"They're strong transit users. They're used to having a good bus system," she said.

The secretary said she hopes the ICC route to the airport will replicate the success of the B30 bus route between the Greenbelt Metro station and BWI. She noted that the Fort Meade route would start as the facility is expecting an increase in employment and traffic because of the base realignment and closure process, or BRAC. She said base officials expect heavy demand among workers for transit choices.

When the highway is fully open, the state plans to add ICC routes between Bethesda and Columbia and Gaithersburg and College Park. The 18 buses the state is buying are expected to serve the four routes. Each bus will have 55 seats, for a cumulative capacity of 990 riders.

Department spokesman Jack Cahalan said no fare structure has been decided for the ICC routes but he noted that they are likely to be similar to the prevailing $4.25 one-way fare on existing commuter routes.

Cahalan said the buses were chosen over the hybrid diesel-electric technology being used in Baltimore's fleet because hybrids are less efficient on free-flowing highways than in stop-and-go traffic.