Gearing up for a fight over Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top transportation priority, a coalition of environmental groups said a new highway is the worst of six alternatives for relieving traffic congestion in the Washington suburbs, according to a report it released yesterday.
The report on the proposed Intercounty Connector, an east-west highway that would link Interstate 95 with Interstate 270, is the first installment in the environmental advocates' formal response to the Ehrlich administration's draft environmental impact statement, which was released in November.
The coalition contends the administration's study was biased in favor of road-building and failed to consider all reasonable alternatives, as required by federal law. The joint state-federal study eliminated mass transit-oriented options earlier in the process and focused on three alternatives: building nothing and two possible ICC routes.
The environmentalists' study looks at four options the state didn't have in its final ICC study, including such components as high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway, express bus routes, rail transit and encouraging denser development around Metro stations.
"We've done what the state has refused to do," said Lee Epstein, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's lands program, at an Annapolis news conference.
Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said the decision to eliminate nonhighway alternatives was the result of a consensus of state and federal agencies.
"It was a collaborative process. We think sound judgments were made," he said.
Flanagan said many of the solutions the coalition studied - particularly a widening of the Capital Beltway with the addition of high-speed toll lanes - are initiatives the Ehrlich administration favors, but not a substitute for the ICC.
"Our analyses indicate that these strategies should be pursued - and the Intercounty Connector should be built," he said.
Traffic congestion ranks among the most politically charged issues in Montgomery County, where business leaders have been looking to the ICC as a solution for decades. In 2002, Ehrlich campaigned on a promise to put the project on a fast track after his election.
The state's study of the project predicted the highway would reduce travel time across Prince George's County. State officials have insisted that the project could be built in an "environmentally friendly" way for about $2.1 billion.
The coalition study challenges the state study on several key points. It concludes the ICC would have the worst effect on air quality of the six solutions studied. The coalition's highest-ranked solution is a combination of high-occupancy toll lanes, land-use changes, bus improvements and construction of an east-west transit line from Bethesda to College Park.
The coalition report was produced for the bay foundation, the Audubon Naturalist Society, the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, Solutions Not Sprawl and the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
The groups are expecting to release a second study in several weeks focusing on the ICC's potential effects on water quality and wildlife.
The studies could help lay the groundwork for a widely expected legal challenge to the sufficiency of the state's environmental impact statement. It could also give talking points to ICC opponents in the General Assembly, who are planning to challenge the financing of the highway with the contention that it diverts money from other projects around the state.