GAITHERSBURG -- In a challenge to both the outgoing Ehrlich administration and the incoming O'Malley regime, opponents of the proposed Inter-County Connector filed a pair of lawsuits yesterday seeking to block construction of the east-west toll highway through Washington's Maryland suburbs.
In suits filed in federal courts in the District of Columbia and in Greenbelt, four environmental groups and two Montgomery County residents who live near the proposed highway contend that federal transportation and environmental agencies abrogated their duties in approving the state's plans for the 18-mile, six-lane highway.
Speaking at a news conference at a suburban home that would lose part of its leafy backyard to the highway, the opponents alleged that state and federal officials glossed over the environmental damage the project would do. They also contend that officials failed to consider other ways of easing Washington-area traffic congestion that would be less costly and less harmful to human health and natural resources.
"We ask that the federal government go back and take an honest look," said Erik Bluemel, staff attorney for the Institute of Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center, one of the lawyers representing highway opponents.
The suits name as defendants federal transportation and environmental agencies, along with regional planning entities that approved the state's ICC plans.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had made the long-planned highway's construction one of his priorities. He revived the project, which his Democratic predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, had rejected on environmental grounds. Ehrlich also sought to "fast-track" approval by federal agencies of a new, more favorable environmental study of the ICC.
Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan defended yesterday the state's efforts to minimize and mitigate the highway's environmental impact. He dismissed ICC opponents as "a tiny minority of people who are unhappy with the democratic process."
"It's not only the governor, but a very strong majority of legislators, state legislators from across the state, [who] support this project," Flanagan said. "They understand that it's going to be very good for the state of Maryland."
Flanagan said bids are being sought for construction of the first leg of the connector, 7.2 miles from Interstate 370 in Gaithersburg to Georgia Avenue near Silver Spring.
The entire project is expected to cost about $2.4 billion, he said, with about $280 million of that devoted to replacing parkland that would be taken for the highway and restoring woods ands wetlands that would be bulldozed.
A spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said the governor-elect stood by his campaign statements in support of the project -- a rare point of agreement between him and the Republican incumbent he ousted. "We will defend the lawsuits, and the ICC will progress, will be built," said Rick Abbruzzese, O'Malley's spokesman.
But opponents said they hope O'Malley will rethink his position once in office.
"When the highway is running right by the swing set, what do you tell your children?" asked Connie McKenna, president of the Shady Grove Woods Homeowners Association, who lives several doors from where yesterday's news conference was held. Her son, Artie Sadtler, 12, has asthma, she said, and she worries that air pollution from the 125,000 vehicles a day expected to use the highway would aggravate his breathing difficulties.
"The worst part of this," McKenna added, "is it's not going to solve the terrible traffic we've been living with."
Though transportation officials say the highway would reduce commute times and ease gridlock along some routes, opponents say traffic would increase, worsening congestion elsewhere.
In addition to displacing 11 businesses and 52 homes, the proposed highway would clear 746 acres of woodlands, fill in 47 acres of wetlands and disrupt about seven miles of streams, said John Parrish, vice president of the Maryland Native Plant Society.
The state plans to create almost twice as many acres of wetlands as the highway would destroy, according to a fact sheet from the state Department of Transportation. Similarly, every acre of parkland lost would be replaced by 8 acres elsewhere.
But the highway also would spawn additional development in the area, Parrish pointed out. He said that growth would level another 2,213 acres of woods, fill in 160 acres more of wetlands and disturb an additional 15 miles of stream bed.