This week's hastily arranged and protester-laden press conference by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announcing federal approval of the Intercounty Connector was a fitting milestone for a project that's been plagued by controversy. Several generations of Montgomery County leaders have been talking about developing an east-west commuter corridor. Now, it seems to be just a matter of months before construction begins.
That's good news, right? So why does it all seem a bit anticlimactic?
Perhaps it's because the criticisms raised by protesters like those at Tuesday's announcement are not without merit. By any measure, the ICC is going to be costly. Most recent estimates peg it at $2.4 billion, making it Maryland's most expensive public works project. Its financing will require not only toll collection (of up to $1,500 per year for a daily, rush-hour commuter) but also a willingness to issue restrictive bonds that will require the state to devote a big share of Maryland's future federal highway aid toward repayment. It's been done in other states but not usually so much for a single project or for so large an amount.
Such a financing plan defers costs (and the traditional consequence - higher gas tax or highway user fees) into the future. But what does it mean for Maryland's transportation plans in the years to come? Are we committing too much of our limited resources to highway construction when we should be investing in more energy-efficient transit modes? That question was answered several years ago when Mr. Ehrlich first pledged his support for the ICC. But gas prices of $3 a gallon and more put the question in quite a different context today.
Marylanders have also become more skeptical in recent years about growth. The ICC will foster development in Montgomery County, where residents have gotten so disenchanted with poorly regulated growth that the county's Planning Board chairman had to resign. And the effects of a six-lane highway between Interstate 270 and the I-95 corridor will require some sacrifice of private homes and the environment - even with the mitigation state officials have promised.
Despite the threat of a last-minute court challenge, the ICC appears to be a sure thing with strong backing from business interests (and all the major candidates for governor). The opportunity to bring some of Montgomery County's well-paid jobs to Prince George's County and the rest of Central Maryland is too attractive to be ignored. But its budget-straining cost, the state's failure to adequately support transit alternatives and the sacrifices the project will require make it far less enticing an enterprise than it seemed just a few years ago.