Walking under oak and pine trees near a stream that would be bisected by the Intercounty Connector, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he believes building the 18-mile highway would improve the environment from Montgomery County to the Chesapeake Bay.
Ehrlich led state lawmakers and reporters yesterday on a bus tour of the two routes under consideration for the $1.7 billion roadway, a tour designed to play down concerns that the ICC would ravage forests, streams and wildlife. In fact, the governor said, the road would be an opportunity to "right some wrongs" of previous development.
"The bottom line is, if we do it right, it will improve [the environment], and that really changes the whole dynamics of the debate," Ehrlich said. "Part of the opposition is based on environmental damage, and if you can negate that, you've gone a long way in making your case even stronger for the general public."
The governor reiterated his desire to break ground on the highway before he comes up for re-election, giving his highway planners a deadline of September 2006 for putting shovel to dirt. Ehrlich said motorists desperate for congestion relief should be skeptical of that goal but not cynical.
"I'm trying to keep the pressure on," Ehrlich said, tromping along a path in black leather shoes caked in mud. "People should be skeptical. They've been victims for too long. But this is a healthy skepticism. Everyone needs to maintain that until we get our shovels and hardhats on in September 2006."
While the governor's two-hour tour was meant to showcase the road safety and environmental improvements that officials say would come from the ICC, opponents say they will vigorously press their case that the road would be an environmental disaster.
The highway, which would link Interstate-370 in Gaithersburg with Interstate-95 in Laurel, was rejected twice in the past decade by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency reported that it 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.
Yesterday, environmentalists denounced the governor's argument that the highway would be a boon for nature, calling such a notion "positively Orwellian."
"It's absolutely absurd to claim you can improve the environment by building a multi-billion dollar highway through deep interior forest habitats, steep slopes and a watershed area with relatively healthy streams," said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "The highway will also add a significant amount of traffic and air pollution."
State officials have said building the ICC would provide state and federal money to make environmental improvements. They said the streams the highway would cross are in danger from sedimentation and need such help.
As the state seeks federal approval for the highway, a critical issue is showing that the brown trout population would not suffer. The foot-long trout need clean stream bottoms to survive and reproduce. Environmentalists worry the fish would be wiped out.
The governor viewed yesterday a stream bank with a sharp drop-off -- one that allows sediments to freely flow into the river and disrupt the gravel beds where the trout lay their eggs. Administration officials say the highway money would help reduce and control runoff as well as pay for trees and stones to line the streams.
The state is studying two possible routes for the ICC, which has been a dream of planners for 40 years. Both begin in Gaithersburg and end south of Laurel at U.S. 1. Both have impacts beyond the environment.
A southern route would require the state to take 20 to 30 homes; a northern route would require taking 40 to 50 homes and also bring the highway close to several historic properties, including a camp meeting ground of the Free Methodist Church.
"We're trying to snake through the communities, snake through the historic properties and minimize the impact," said Wes Mitchell, the State Highway Administration's project manager. "But we realize we're going to have some impact."
The bus tour yesterday passed by historic sites near the northern route and homes that would be taken -- some of them stately two-story houses with basketball hoops in the driveways and tall, old trees scattered through the yards.
"They shouldn't have allowed any development along the route, and they did," said state Del. Joan F. Stern, whose district would be bisected by the ICC. "The master plan's been on the books for what, 50 years, and they'll have to take out 40 homes? That's crazy."
Still, she said she supports the road because of the nightmarish traffic in the region and the deaths that have come from collisions on narrow two-lane roads that motorists use to cut across Montgomery County.
But before the road can be built, there is the matter of paying for it. While the initial construction cost would be $1.7 billion, the road would ultimately cost almost $3 billion because of interest from bonds the state would sell to finance construction. Officials are counting on the federal government to pitch in $800 million.
"This is one of the top road projects we have," said U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat who was on the bus tour yesterday and who is pushing for the federal money.
"We look at it as something that will be good for the state," Wynn said, "and good for the economic development of Montgomery and Prince George's counties."
Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.