Drivers rejoice as ICC halves Laurel-Gaithersburg travel time

They gathered before dawn in a hotel parking lot, determined to prove themselves right. A former state senator. The one-time leader of Maryland's most populous county. Several local business owners.

Would the Intercounty Connector, Maryland's most expensive highway, be everything they had promised the public over decades of debate and planning?

To answer the question Tuesday morning, just hours after the road opened, these pillars of the community staged a road rally of sorts, pitting two time-honored Gaithersburg-to-Laurel routes against the new highway.

The upshot? The ICC lived up to its hype, delivering drivers to the finish line long before the competition.

"This is a transportation miracle," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "You can't believe it until you drive it — Gaithersburg to Laurel in 20 minutes."

The $2.56 billion ICC, on the drawing board since the Eisenhower administration, connects Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg to Interstate 95 in Laurel with six lanes of smooth blacktop, cutting the usual travel time in about half.

The toll road opened end-to-end just past midnight Tuesday and all the ramps were open at 12:45 a.m., said Maryland Transportation Authority spokeswoman Cheryl Sparks. By 7 a.m., traffic was streaming from I-95 onto the ICC.

"Everything went very smoothly," Sparks said.

To get to its rubber-meets-the-road moment, the highway survived challenges from neighbors and environmentalists, uncertain financial backing, and a governor who was for the ICC before he was against it — and who then tried to sell the land out from under it.

The Washington region suffers from the worst traffic congestion in the nation, according to an annual study conducted by Texas A&M University.

Locally, businesses are feeling squeezed.

Emmet Tydings, owner of a Gaithersburg telecommunications company, said gridlock on the Capital Beltway scared off high-quality job applicants from the Baltimore area, forcing him to open a satellite office in Columbia earlier this year. Now the ICC will let him to tap into a larger talent pool.

"It's jobs, it's time," said Tydings, who participated in the road rally. "My dog in this fight is economic development, and you won't have economic development with congestion."

Other participants said the new road means they will switch allegiance from Dulles International Airport to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

"I had an embargo on BWI for my family coming to visit," said Jerry Garson, who lives in Potomac. "It could take four hours round-trip to go get them. I could drive to New York in that time. Now, I'll tell them to use BWI."

Richard Parsons, executive director of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, said that in addition to delivering more passenger traffic to BWI, the ICC would funnel more commercial freight to the airport and help Maryland compete against Northern Virginia for new business and jobs.

"This keeps us in the game. Without transportation infrastructure to get workers to your facility and your product out to market, you're dead in the water," Parsons said. "A University of Maryland study in 2004 predicted the ICC would bring billions of dollars of benefits to users of the road over 20 years, create thousands of new jobs and strengthen BWI. That's a pretty good return on a $2.5 billion investment."

From the beginning, the fight over the ICC was framed as a conflict between the needs of the business community, which wanted to streamline access to the I-270 technology corridor, and the desire of environmentalists to protect woods and wetlands.

Groups such as the Sierra Club opposed the road, saying it would siphon transportation money from mass-transit projects, increase auto use and encourage sprawl.

Entire political slates of candidates built platforms around the future of the highway. Parris N. Glendening, as both Prince George's County executive and as governor, favored the road for 12 years. But he got cold feet in 1998 and convened a blue-ribbon panel to study the issue, only to reject its recommendation to build an east-west highway.

Glendening then promised to "drive a stake through the heart" of the project by selling off land earmarked for construction to prevent any future administrations from moving forward.

The matter seemed dead until Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan applied directly to the Bush administration to fast-track the project. The application, one of 113 submitted nationwide, was approved and then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pushed the process ahead. The O'Malley administration ensured the road was finished.

"It's been a long battle," Duncan said. "I think people will find it was worth it."

The 18-mile road will be free through Dec. 4. After that, users will be charged on a sliding scale, depending on the time of day, with a one-way trip costing up to $4. The road has no toll booths, making E-ZPass the most convenient method to pay. Overhead cameras will photograph the license plates of motorists who do not use E-ZPass; they will receive a bill by mail for 150 percent of the original toll.

The final portion of the ICC, a 1.5-mile segment connecting I-95 to U.S. 1, is expected to open in 2014.