Federal regulators are objecting to one of two proposed routes for a highway that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has called his No. 1 transportation priority, finding that the state's efforts to lessen the road's impact fall short of what is needed to protect the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency said it also has "concerns" about an alternative northern route for the Intercounty Connector but suggested that proposal would be more acceptable.
People familiar with the EPA's process say the agency's comments are not a death knell for the southern route. Neither is it guaranteed that the Ehrlich administration will choose the northern corridor. Rather, they say, the state needs to make changes to lessen the damage to habitat, wetlands and streams regardless of where it wants to build the highway.
"What this means is that, while there are objections to it, we think there are mitigation measures that could be brought to bear that would minimize the environmental impacts," said Thomas Voltaggio, the EPA's deputy regional administrator.
Opponents of the road, which would link Interstate 95 in Prince George's County with the technology-rich Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County, said the EPA's finding would give them new ammunition in their efforts to block the ICC.
"Certainly, EPA's objections will have some weight if this is reviewed by a judge," said Michael Replogle, transportation director of the advocacy group Environmental Defense.
But State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said the EPA's comments were "just a step in the process" of considering the various highway alternatives. "We have worked so closely together with all of the agencies, including EPA, that there were no surprises in this letter," he said.
The EPA's objections to the southern route - known as Corridor 1 - were outlined in a Feb. 25 letter to the state from regional administrator Donald S. Welsh. Twice before, in 1983 and 1997, the EPA helped block the proposed road because of objections to that route.
"Corridor 1 bisects major stream valley parks, crosses high quality wetlands embedded in interior forest complex, and crosses tributary streams which contain the only reproducing trout population in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area," Welsh wrote. He said the agency appreciates the state's efforts to lessen the impact of the road but said "the impacts remain significant."
The EPA expressed particular concern about the Paint Branch watershed, which supports the only naturally reproducing brown trout population in metropolitan Washington.
Despite the Highway Administration's plans to buffer the impact on the stream and its tributaries, "there is a considerable risk that the trout population will be lost when highways span trout streams," the letter said. The EPA suggested it has fewer concerns about the proposed northern alternative - known as Corridor 2. The agency said that route "crosses lower quality wetland and stream buffers" than Corridor 1 and is an area of "limited natural diversity or prime habitat."
That alternative faces considerable local opposition, however, because it would require the bulldozing of more homes and businesses and affect more communities. Just yesterday, the Montgomery County Council voted to support the southern route - a position also taken by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and the local planning board.
Duncan spokesman David Weaver said the state should stick with Corridor 1, which is in the county's master plan. "We have to keep faith with the people of our community," Weaver said. "People have made home purchases and other decisions based on the belief that this road would go along the master plan alignment."
But Corridor 2, which would run through the Burtonsville area, also faces opposition because of its proximity to the drinking water resources of the Rocky Gorge Reservoir on the Howard County-Montgomery County line.
The EPA said it was raising only concerns - not an objection - to Corridor 2 based on an assumption that the state would take steps to minimize the road's impact on the reservoir.
Bill Matuszeski, former director of the EPA's Program in , said the agency's assessments approximate what he would expect at this stage of a controversial project.
"The EPA is not taking on the underlying issue of the need for the project, so that to me is a signal that they're not going to lie down in front of the bulldozers on this one," he said.
Matuszeski said the EPA's declaration that it has "environmental objections" to Corridor 1 is the equivalent of a grade of "C." The agency's expression of "environmental concerns" about Corridor 2 is equivalent to a "B," he said.
The SHA's Pedersen said the EPA's rating of "environmental objections" to the southern corridor represents a softening of its opposition to that route. In the 1983 and 1997 environmental studies, he said, the EPA gave the route its lowest possible rating: "environmentally unacceptable."
After the 1997 EPA rating, Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening withdrew his support for the ICC and attempted to kill it. But Ehrlich campaigned in 2002 on a promise to revive the proposed highway, which has been in the state's plans for about four decades. Since taking office, the Republican governor has pushed aggressively to build the road, persuading President Bush to put it on a fast track for federal consideration.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and a leading environmentalist, had not seen the letter yesterday but was not surprised by the agency's conclusion about the southern route. He noted that the Corridor 1 route has remained largely the same since the last EPA evaluation.
"In one sense, it's not a surprise," he said. "But when you have a Republican governor running around saying he has met all the environmental criteria, you would think that the environmental administration at the national level would be in line. But apparently they are not."
Sun staff writers David Nitkin and Tom Pelton contributed to this article.