Capital Beltway relief valve clogged by political gridlock Connector highway for D.C.-area suburbs is electoral litmus test


The most studied highway proposal in Maryland history has become the road not taken.

First mentioned by state officials 50 years ago, the Intercounty Connector (ICC) was envisioned as part of the outer Washington Beltway, an 18-mile blacktop escape valve for commuters traveling through the suburbs between Laurel and Rockville.

Now, the ICC is a symbol of the friction that almost inevitably develops among transportation planners, environmentalists, politicians, business leaders and residents throughout the country when it comes to roads.

No one debates that traffic in and around Washington is bad and getting worse. The region has the dubious distinction of being second only to Los Angeles in traffic congestion.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and business leaders insist that the road is essential to cut travel time between the Washington and Baltimore suburbs and keep the region competitive with other markets.

They were disappointed in March when planning for the $1.1 billion highway was put on hold by longtime champion Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who then formed a committee directed to take a fresh look at easing gridlock.

Although the panel is notable for its optimistic name -- the Transportation Solutions Group -- and the number of national experts serving on it, many people doubt its work will result in a breakthrough.

"The bottom line is, what is this study committee going to find?" asks Lon Anderson of the Potomac chapter of the American Automobile Association (AAA). "A transportation crisis is no mystery. It's too much demand and too many vehicles and too little capacity."

The group's chairman, Thomas Deen, accepts those suspicions. "This policy impasse is symbolic of the kinds of problems faced ** around the nation in rapidly growing urban areas," says Deen, former executive director of the Transportation Research Board, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. "I don't know if

there will be solutions found or not."

Even in its suspended state, the ICC remains a political litmus test. Support it and be labeled an anti-environment troglodyte. Oppose it and be called an anti-business Luddite.

"It is self-evident it has polarized the community," acknowledges state Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead, a former lobbyist for the Greater Washington Board of Trade who urged quick completion of the highway.

Montgomery County politicians, with their eyes toward November, have formed slates built around pro- and anti-ICC positions.

The AAA, which supports the highway, promises to use the final pre-election issue of its local magazine to remind its readers of candidates' positions. The Sierra Club, an ICC opponent, has vowed to do likewise.

Frustration reached a flash point in the fall, after federal and state officials cited environmental concerns and killed the primary route that had been acquired for $35 million and had been on the region's planning maps for 30 years.

Alternative routes that use some of the original corridor but take a more northerly track at its eastern end have proven unpopular as well.

"It's a gross violation of people when you give them 30 years of a master plan and then change the route," says state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Republican who represents the northern portion of Montgomery County and part of Howard County. "How do you realistically compensate people who relied on local planning and bought homes in neighborhoods that are now threatened by one of these routes?"

Pollution fears

The northern routes also have been criticized for their potential to pollute the watersheds that feed the Tridelphia and Rocky Gorge reservoirs on the Montgomery-Howard county line.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission says road-building and runoff could dump sediment into the reservoirs that supply as much as 60 million gallons of water daily to Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

ICC opponents say that's just the beginning of the environmental problems. They argue that construction would destroy more than 500 acres of woods, threaten the headwaters of Rock Creek and increase air pollution.

"These are the last best areas in Montgomery County," says botanist John Parrish of Silver Spring. "It's easy to think about traffic and congestion now, but you can't build your way out of this situation."

No traffic relief

Greg Smith of the Campaign to Stop the Intercounty Connector says the state's reports say the highway would do nothing to relieve traffic on the Capital Beltway, Interstate 95 or I-270. "We'd rather take our $1 billion and spend it on alternatives," he says.

That is exactly what the Montgomery County Council wants to do, too. Rather than wait for Glendening's study, the council has asked the state to pay for $700 million in road and mass transit improvements instead of the ICC, with the emphasis on transit.

"One long road was not going to solve our problems," says County Council member Derick P. Berlage, author of the transportation package. "These road improvements individually aren't as impressive as a limited-access highway, but as a group will make a significant contribution to reducing congestion."

However, mass transit -- while popular in theory -- is rarely embraced by commuters.

As it works toward its deadline about a year from now, the Glendening group will no doubt be briefed on national commuting trends chronicled -- not coincidentally -- by group member Alan E. Pisarski, transportation consultant and author of the study, "Commuting in America II."

Pisarski has documented long-term declines in mass transit and carpooling and increases in people driving alone to work. He has also studied the dramatic growth of suburb-to-suburb commuting. Together, these trends add up to clogged secondary roads. They also make transit solutions difficult.

Fixed rail systems -- subways, trains and light rail -- are best suited for traditional suburb-to-city commutes, because they require masses of people going to the same place.

East-west tracks

"It's a very, very difficult task" to make [mass] transit work for the more dispersed suburb-to-suburb commuting patterns of the 1990s, Pisarski says.

Still, the group will undoubtedly consider transit options. Some possibilities studied in recent years include east-west light rail and subway lines near the Washington Beltway and light rail from Bethesda to Silver Spring.

John W. Frece, the governor's special assistant for smart growth, hopes the group will break away from traditional transportation planning, with its emphasis on responding to past trends.

"You don't have to accept the trends," he said. "We hope the Transportation Solutions Group will come up with recommendations that will change the trends."

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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