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THE BALTIMORE SUN

The same forces that contended in the decades-long struggle over the Inter-County Connector have drawn new battle lines over a $4.6 billion proposal to widen Interstate 270 in Montgomery and Frederick counties - potentially the most expensive transportation project in Maryland history.

The proposal to add four express toll lanes to the heavily congested highway - at a cost almost twice that of the $2.6 billion ICC - is drawing the support of Montgomery County business leaders and fierce opposition from environmental groups.

Meanwhile, the enormous price - about triple the cost of Baltimore's proposed east-west light rail line - is likely to raise concerns in the Baltimore metropolitan area, which is struggling to meet its own transportation needs. While Montgomery County's planning board recently endorsed one of the most expensive options in a study of the I-270 corridor, costs for the city's Red Line are being pared; planners are even considering running trains both ways on a single track through a mile-long tunnel.

The ICC was approved with little opposition from Baltimore because of hopes it could improve connections between the state's two biggest population centers, but widening I-270 would have little traffic impact on the city or its suburbs. The price tag will "absolutely" raise concerns among Baltimore-area legislators, said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a member of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

"Unless I'm missing something, I don't see how it would not drain from other areas of the state," said the Howard County Democrat, who argues that the state needs to make "a real commitment to transit" and not just wider highways.

I-270 runs from the Capital Beltway to Frederick County, which in recent decades has been steadily pulled into Washington's orbit.

Affordable real estate - at least compared with close-in suburbs - and less-than-stringent planning have brought explosive growth to northern Montgomery County and parts of Frederick County. The result: grinding congestion on I-270, arguably the most clogged traffic corridor in Maryland.

Lisa Fadden, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, says the highway widening would help the entire state by fostering growth and tax revenue in the high-tech corridor.

"The bottom line ... is that people in Baltimore and around the state will benefit from a vibrant Montgomery County," she said. Without a wider I-270, "the state will lose revenue as a result of companies not wanting to locate in a congested corridor."

The Montgomery chamber was one of the driving forces behind the successful effort to win approval for the ICC, now under construction between I-270 and the Interstate 95-U.S. 1 corridor.

Among the leading foes of the ICC - who held off the road for decades and almost succeeded in killing it - were such groups as the Sierra Club, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Audubon Naturalist Society of Maryland and 1000 Friends of Maryland.

The same groups are now rallying to oppose the I-270 widening, contending that it represents a discredited 20th-century notion that congestion can be cured by building ever-wider roads. They say it will encourage rampant sprawl in Mongtomery and Frederick County - and as far west as Hagerstown - that will quickly chew up whatever new road capacity is created.

"You're just heading down a path that is not affordable," said Ben Ross, president of the Action Committee for Transit. "We need to cut back on burning oil both for national security and global warming. We shouldn't be spending $4 billion just to encourage more people to drive."

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, said she was "stunned" to hear the proposal because she thought the state had learned its lesson about road projects.

"We see two things when you widen a highway: One is that it fills up fast, and the other is that people will live farther away. It promotes sprawl. It happens every time," she said.

The environmental groups are urging a greater emphasis on transit in the corridor, including expanded MARC service to downtown Frederick or Hagerstown and a possible extension of the Washington Metro's Red Line to the Germantown area.

A transit line called the Corridor Cities Transitway is part of the same study that is considering the road-widening proposal. Construction costs of the transit project are estimated at $450 million for rapid bus service and $778 million for light rail - about 10 percent to 15 percent of the amount proponents of the highway project are seeking.

But the Montgomery chamber's Fadden said the investment in highway widening is necessary because "not everybody is going to use transit." Some people, she said, have to drive in order "to pick up their kids at day car and pick up their dry cleaning."

Charlie Gischlar, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration, said I-270 has been congested a long time and that "something has to be done there." He said the corridor, which carried 174,900 vehicles a day in 1998, is projected to be flooded with 247,000 daily in 2030.

Gischlar said the state could widen the highway in a way that would have a minimal impact on the Chesapeake Bay watershed because it would be accompanied by a menu of "environmental stewardship" projects such as those that helped win federal approval of the ICC.

"With enough thought, you can always create balance between environmental responsibility and transportation improvements," he said.

Advocates of the road-widening contend it would provide benefits for the environment in general and the bay in particular. Richard Parsons, a Montgomery County consultant who was one of the fiercest advocates of the ICC when he led the Montgomery chamber pointed to projections that the widening supported by the planning board would bring a 61 percent reduction in what would otherwise be "horrific congestion" and up to an 87 percent increase in travel speed.

"When travel speeds improve this significantly, not only do you help people get where they are going much faster (a good thing, last I checked), but you also save tons of wasted fuel and unnecessary auto emissions from over 200,000 cars per day stuck idling in stop-and-go conditions, which is the worst possible outcome for the environment," he wrote in a recent commentary on the Maryland Politics Watch blog.

That environmental argument is a familiar one from the ICC debate, but it is one that is almost never used by recognized environmental groups.

Tom Zolper, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said there might be emission reductions in the short term but that over the long term the widening would result in greater sprawl and more pollution. "It's like surgically enlarging someone's clogged arteries and telling them to eat more pork rinds."

Questions of whether and how to widen I-270 are scheduled to be taken up in September by the Montgomery County Council.

One person who finds himself on the opposite side of where he stood in the ICC debate is Council President Phil Andrews. To this day, he insists the ICC is a waste of money, but sees "a lot more merit" in the I-270 project.

"We have to do something to address the unacceptable level of congestion on I-270," he said. "The argument will be made that the I-270 corridor is the economic engine of the state and the state has an interest in continuing to see that's the case."

But Andrews said he and other council members may not be wedded to the planning board's preferred plan and could choose a less expensive option.

Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan emphasized that the entire I-270 corridor project - both transit and highway - is still under study. The transit portion is most likely to be funded in the short term, he said, while highway improvements would be built in phases over decades and could be much more modest than those favored by the Montgomery chamber and planning board.

"On a project like this, you have a high end and a low end, and you usually end up somewhere in between," he said. "That's the reality of how these things work."

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