SILVER SPRING -- In a county where traffic is enemy No. 1, one proposed highway has become a political silver bullet.
It won't fix all the traffic woes of the Capital Beltway, nor is there any guarantee that it will clear federal environmental hurdles.
But the Intercounty Connector -- which Gov. Parris N. Glendening did all he could to kill three years ago -- has emerged as the dominant issue for statewide and local candidates in Maryland's largest jurisdiction.
"The ICC has become a symbol of support or opposition to relieving traffic congestion," says Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
Developers and business groups are pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of those who support the east-west highway stretching across Montgomery County.
Duncan -- who faces no serious opposition in his bid for a third term -- is devoting a portion of his campaign treasury to electing a "pro-ICC" slate to the County Council, trying to undo a recent vote that stripped the highway from his ambitious transportation plan.
And at a recent early morning candidates' forum in downtown Silver Spring -- miles from the communities where the ICC would aim to relieve traffic -- the highway nevertheless managed to dominate many of the questions and answers.
"Wherever you go in this county, you hear about traffic," says Steve Joseph, a Democrat seeking a seat on Montgomery's council. "People talk about the stress in their lives, from that 5:30 [p.m.] to 7:30 [p.m.] time period, when traffic disrupts almost anything they want to do."
In the spotlight
The $1.5 billion highway -- which would link Interstate 270 to Interstate 95 -- has become so significant that it is even taking on a major role in statewide campaigns.
Democrat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend thought that backing the ICC was so important that she chose it as her first major policy break from Glendening.
Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. believes his support for the ICC to be worthy of highlighting in his first television ad in the Washington suburbs.
In the increasingly fractious Democratic primary campaign for comptroller, incumbent William Donald Schaefer is trying to play up his support for the ICC. His challenger, Secretary of State John T. Willis, says he wants to do an environmental study but isn't convinced the road can be safely built.
The attention to the ICC from statewide candidates isn't so surprising, given that Montgomery makes up such a large portion of the electorate. About 18 percent of the votes cast in the 1998 gubernatorial election came from the county.
In a poll conducted this summer by Potomac Survey Research for The Sun, two-thirds of likely voters in Montgomery and Prince George's counties backed building the ICC. More Montgomery voters say traffic is their top concern than any other issue. Among voters statewide, support for the highway outnumbered opposition more than 3-to-1.
That helps explain why candidates who support the ICC promote their position in campaign literature and in speeches. Duncan is bombarding homes with mailings pushing his slate of four pro-ICC council members, dubbed the "End Gridlock Team," and in Prince George's Del. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Democrat, is playing up the ICC in his bid to unseat longtime Sen. Arthur Dorman, also a Democrat.
"Five or 10 years ago, people didn't really like the ICC, and it wasn't something you talked about as one of your issues," Giannetti says. "But there's been a recognizable shift in opinion."
While those who oppose it aren't hiding from their position, they don't advertise it, either. They push fixing gridlock through mass transit but seldom mention the highway proposal in campaign literature.
"It won't fix the problems of traffic," says Montgomery council member Blair Ewing, a Democrat, who has led opposition to the ICC but makes no mention of it in his pamphlet. "The studies show it won't provide the relief that would come from doing other things."
'All at risk'
Supporters of the ICC say it is crucial to connect Montgomery's crowded I-270 corridor with I-95, linking the growing business community more easily to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the port of Baltimore. They say development was permitted to occur in Montgomery because the road was on the planning books, and eliminating it leaves the county choking on traffic congestion.
"All of that economic activity, the wildly successful economic development strategy of Montgomery, it's all at risk," says Richard N. Parsons, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.
Opponents say the ICC would have to run through environmentally sensitive areas and couldn't be built without serious destruction. Even if environmental approval were secured, opponents say the highway would be so expensive and take so long to be built -- perhaps a decade or more -- that it would take resources from quicker traffic relief options.
"If you do not control growth in Montgomery County, you can build all the roads in the world and it won't make a difference," says Marc Elrich, a member of the Takoma Park City Council who is running for County Council.
The high-profile role of the ICC in this year's elections comes after Glendening sought in 1999 to prevent the road from being built. After supporting the road when he was first elected governor, Glendening then declared that building it would cause too many environmental problems.
The governor then tried to sell the land owned by the state where the ICC would be built -- a move that was blocked on the Board of Public Works by Schaefer and then-Treasurer Richard N. Dixon.
Glendening is convinced the ICC will never be built. "I know people are out there running for various offices saying, 'Oh, I'll build the ICC,'" Glendening said in a recent interviewed taped for Montgomery County public-access television. "But I think when they come to grips with what it really means, including the environmental impact, they'll realize it'll never be approved by the federal government."
Townsend insists the ICC can be built in a way that does little or no damage to the environment, pointing to highways in other states that managed to safely pass through sensitive areas.
Environmentalists who fiercely oppose the road cling to the hope that Townsend will make the same post-election conversion Glendening did and oppose the road if she is elected governor. They don't expect Ehrlich would change his position because he has long been an advocate for the road.