Backers, foes clash over plan for road

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GREENBELT -- Advocates and opponents of a proposed highway linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties clashed last night at the first of four hearings on the project, with supporters praising it as a job-creating antidote to gridlock and foes condemning it as a money-wasting contributor to sprawl.

The hearing in Prince George's, which drew about 200 people, was the first since the Maryland Department of Transportation released its draft environmental impact statement on the Intercounty Connector -- Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top transportation priority -- in November.

ICC supporters praised the study as a comprehensive assessment of the road's benefits and costs, while environmentalists and community groups dismissed it as more sell job than science.

The hearing, which began at 6 p.m. and continued late into the night, brought out a broad array of groups on both sides. Among the more than 50 people who had signed up in advance to speak were representatives of groups including AAA Mid-Atlantic and the Maryland Native Plant Society.

While some polls have shown a majority of Marylanders support the project, the numbers and the passion were on the side of the ICC's foes last night.

Greenbelt Mayor Judith Davis, who said she fought the ICC at hearings during the 1990s before then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening shelved the project, likened its revival to a bad horror film. She denounced the project as a "boondoogle" that would exacerbate sprawl and benefit only those who can afford high tolls.

"The monster is back, more terrifying than ever," she said to vigorous applause. "Kill the monster one more time. Kill the ICC."

But other Marylanders expressed support.

Roger Drissel of Annapolis recounted the difficulties of his former commute between Severna Park and Rockville.

"I am an environmentalist at heart, but I am also a realist," he said, calling the project 25 years overdue. "Get on with it."

The public hearings, required under federal environmental law for major transportation projects, will continue tonight in Gaithersburg.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan -- a key backer of the project -- will use that forum to trumpet his support of an ICC route that runs through the Wheaton area rather than a proposed alternative to the north. He said yesterday that the southern route is in the county's master plan.

Duncan, a prospective Democratic candidate for governor, will also come out strongly against the Ehrlich administration's plan to scrap a proposal to build a parallel bike trail as part of the ICC project.

The issue in contention at the hearings is whether to build a long-planned, approximately 18-mile toll highway connecting Interstate 95 with Montgomery County's technology-rich I-270 corridor. The road, which would cost an estimated $2.1 billion, would provide an additional east-west connection through an area known for mind-numbing traffic congestion.

Ehrlich, who championed the ICC during his 2002 election campaign, has put the project on a fast track in hopes of breaking ground in the election year of 2006. State transportation officials put together a new draft environmental statement -- replacing one done in the 1990s -- in about 18 months.

State transportation officials have defended the study as an example of how government agencies can work more quickly through cooperation, but opponents condemned the study as slipshod and biased.

Jim Fary, the Montgomery County Sierra Club's conservation committee chairman, said earlier yesterday that he has read most of the nearly 1,500-page document and that it compares poorly with the 1997 study.

Fary, a former official with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said the study understates the impact of the road on water quality and natural habitats. "It is a public relations document to justify the building of a road," he said.

Neil Pedersen, head of the state highway administration, denied that charge last night.

"It's not only an objective scientific assessment, it is very technical, numbers-oriented, fact-driven assessments and analysis," he said.

Richard Parsons, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday the study has already prompted transportation officials to change plans in order to make the ICC more compatible with the environment. "They're going the extra mile in how they're approaching runoff and water-quality issues," he said.

Parsons dismissed opponents as anti-road zealots and residents who don't want the ICC in their back yards, even though the ICC was in the state's plans long before their homes were built.

"They're not just NIMBYs. They're BANANAs -- Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody," he said.

While the ICC has the support of Ehrlich, Duncan and a majority of the Montgomery County Council, political leaders in Prince George's have been much cooler to the project. The Prince George's council unanimously backed a resolution opposing the road, and several local officials spoke out against the project at a hearing in that county.

Additional hearings are scheduled Saturday and Jan. 22 in Silver Spring. As of yesterday, 118 people had signed up to speak at Saturday's hearing at James Blake High School.

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