Maryland's plan to build the Intercounty Connector highway picked up significant momentum yesterday as the Bush administration placed the road that has twice been rejected by environmental authorities on a fast track for a new federal review.
The proposed $1.5 billion highway in Montgomery County - alternately portrayed as a relief valve for choked roads and as a disaster for the environment - is still not a sure thing.
But yesterday's announcement signaled key federal support and means that construction could begin within five years.
"The stars are aligned for the ICC," said Robert L. Flanagan, the governor's nominee for state transportation secretary. "I'm very optimistic that we are on a path for environmental approval and construction."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has made building the highway his top transportation priority, called the federal decision "the first positive step in a long time. This gets us closer to the goal of being under way by the time my first term is complete."
The 18-mile highway would connect Interstate 270 to Interstate 95 between Rockville and Laurel.
It was one of six transportation projects nationwide chosen for a fast-track review. Flanagan attributed the state's success to Ehrlich, who pushed for the highway in recent meetings with President Bush.
"I think we had a leg up on other people," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who made building the ICC a centerpiece of his re-election campaign last year.
"We're not going to wait behind other projects now. We'll advance to the head of the line."
Others were decidedly less enthusiastic. Environmental advocates worry that a fast-track review will be an incomplete review. They contend that the ICC would cause air pollution, sprawl and damage to the Chesapeake Bay.
"Fast track is a way to get around the rules that are in place to protect the environment," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, which was joined by a host of other environmental groups in decrying the decision.
"The proponents of this expensive road to ruin know that they'd never get this through a full environmental review," Schmidt-Perkins said. "They're cheating. They're bypassing the process."
More than 70 transportation projects were submitted by governors across the country to win fast-track status.
The six to make the list included rebuilding the transit system in Lower Manhattan that was devastated by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The ICC appears to be among the more controversial projects to be selected.
The highway has been a part of Montgomery County's master plan for 40 years, but attempts to build it have been derailed by environmental concerns.
In a 1997 analysis, the federal Environmental Protection Agency said the highway would destroy at least 145 acres of parkland, rip through 22 acres of wetlands, cut across 77 streams and take the homes of 27 species of birds.
The report said the master plan route for ICC "represents one of the largest wetlands impacts reviewed by the EPA in Maryland in recent times."
But Flanagan, who is expected to be confirmed today, said previous plans did not include information that makes the highway more palatable to environmental officials.
"The master plan alignment is fully consistent with Smart Growth policies adopted by Montgomery County and the state of Maryland, and the ICC will be built using modern construction techniques that are designed to protect the environment and minimize any potential harm," Flanagan said.
He said the fast-track status will result in a "very significant" reduction in the time needed to draft an environmental impact statement and to win federal approval. His department will soon be meeting with the Bush administration to plot a strategy for winning that approval, one state official said.
Under the most optimistic circumstances, officials say they could break ground in four to five years. Construction would then take several years.
State and federal officials insisted yesterday that they would follow all environmental laws.
But some activists said there won't be enough time to address the complicated issues raised by the road. They also disputed assertions that it would relieve congestion.
"The groups pushing the ICC wanted fast track because they know that time and truth are their enemies," said Montgomery County Councilman Phil Andrews.