ADELPHI -- Officials from 28 federal, state and local agencies met yesterday to begin a fast-track process for approving the Intercounty Connector -- a highway that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged will be under way by the end of his first term.
The governor's presence was intended to underscore his commitment to building the 18-mile highway, which would connect Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg with Interstate 95 in Laurel and cost at least $1.5 billion.
"It's been the butt of jokes, the source of cynicism for so many years," Ehrlich said. "We're serious about it -- for the first time in a long time."
Supporters of the road contend it will relieve nightmarish congestion on the Capital Beltway, improve the quality of life for thousands of people and boost the state's economy. Opponents counter that it will only encourage more development, draw more cars onto the roads and cause irreparable harm to the environment.
The highway was rejected twice by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The main proposed route was given the agency's lowest rating -- "environmentally unsatisfactory" -- for the damage it would inflict on forests, wetlands, streams and wildlife.
But a top EPA official said yesterday that the agency is receptive to the project. "What's past is past," said Tom Voltaggio, the EPA's deputy administrator for the mid-Atlantic region. "We look forward to a process that reviews these concerns and want to build something everyone can live with."
The governor and top state officials said building the road would provide the state with federal money to repair harm done to the environment by previous development. "I think we can undo some of the damage of the past," Ehrlich said.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, called it "positively Orwellian" to suggest "that a massive highway through the forests will improve the environment."
The Bush administration put the ICC on the fast track for federal approval in February. The environmental review process is expected to take two years, and Ehrlich has said he wants to break ground in 2006.
"They're making a mockery of the environmental laws in our country," Schwartz said. "They're saying it will be built. You prejudge the outcome of the process before you've even started it."
About 30 ICC opponents stood outside the University of Maryland conference center while officials inside made plans for winning approval for the road. Seven environmental and civic groups organized the rally and said there was no reason to revisit the EPA's 1997 decision against the road.
"The environment hasn't changed. The facts haven't changed," said Steve Caflisch, transportation chairman of the Sierra Club in Maryland.
Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening halted study of the ICC after the EPA's critical report. But Ehrlich campaigned for governor on a pledge to build the highway -- a popular theme in Montgomery County, where the roads are often choked. Last fall, voters there elected a pro-ICC County Council and overwhelmingly re-elected the pro-ICC county executive, Douglas M. Duncan.
There is less support in Prince George's County, where the council this week unanimously voted to oppose the highway, saying it would steer economic development to Montgomery County.
The state has mailed 108,000 letters to homeowners near the three proposed ICC routes and has scheduled two public hearings -- on June 26 in Silver Spring and June 30 in Beltsville. Information is available on the state's new ICC Web site, www.iccstudy.org.