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$2.6B ICC hailed as catalyst for commerce

GAITHERSBURG — The decades-long wait for the Inter-County Connector will end Wednesday when drivers get their first crack at the new toll road snaking through Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

At a rain-soaked ribbon-cutting event in the westbound lanes Monday morning, local, state and federal officials lauded the $2.6 billion highway project as a catalyst for economic development in the area and a decongestant for its roads.

“The ICC helps Marylanders, helps hard-working moms and dads get part of their lives back,” Gov. Martin O’Malley said. “Instead of sitting in traffic, they’ll actually be able to get home.”

More than just linking highways, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the ICC will connect “people with schools and work and family and friends.”

“A generation ago,” he said, “our parents and grandparents followed the same roadmap to prosperity when they planned and paved the interstate highway system. And that’s exactly what we’re doing for the next generation.”

The first leg of the highway, the 7.2 miles from Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg to Georgia Avenue, will open at 6 a.m. Wednesday. Winter weather forecasted for Monday night forced transportation officials to push the opening back by a day because crews would not be able to lay down new lane markers with snow and ice on the ground, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Drivers will travel for free through March 6, after which automatic toll collectors will begin charging E-ZPasses, or snapping photos of the license plates of cars without them. Starting April 6, those drivers without E-ZPasses will be billed the cost of the toll plus a $3 administrative fee.

Tolls for cars will range from 10 cents per mile during the late night and early morning hours to 25 cents per mile during rush hour, when a trip along the first phase will cost $1.45. Trucks will pay more, from a $1.70 for three axle-vehicles overnight to $10.60 during rush hour for trucks with six axles.

Can’t wait to pay

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery, said he “can’t wait” to pay the tolls.

“It’s going to save me money. I’m going to be saving gas each way when it’s fully built out,” said Barve, who now has to work his way up through Olney and into Howard County to get from Gaithersburg to Annapolis.

The genesis of the ICC, or Maryland Route 200, dates to 1950, when the National Capital Planning Commission recommended a second beltway around Washington, D.C. Maryland’s suburban jurisdictions scrapped the idea in 1968, but kept the stretch from I-270 to I-95 in their long-term plans.

Maryland began its first of three studies of the planned highway in 1979, and 20 years later, Gov. Parris Glendening halted the second over environmental concerns. His successor, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., pressed forward with the project. His administration chose the route and broke ground in 2006.

Ehrlich stood with several former aides near the back of the crowd to watch the ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday. They toasted with sparkling cider in clear plastic cups.

“This is an important road,” said Ehrlich. “It was literally on the books for 61 years, and it’s good for Maryland, so it’s a great day for Maryland.”

But, the day wasn’t without controversy.

Environmentalists unhappy

Environmental groups were staunchly opposed to the road’s construction, despite the state committing $109 million to mitigate the project’s impact. Opponents jeered during the speeches Monday, and held signs displaying messages like “Can’t see the forests or the trees.”

“The ICC is a tremendous boondoggle,” said Anne Ambler, of Silver Spring. “It cuts through neighborhoods. It destroys the natural environment that we very much need to process the air and the water and so forth. Pavement does not do it.”

Del. Sam Arora, a Democrat whose Montgomery County district encompasses most of the section to open Wednesday, said he is worried the new artery could stress the older roads in the area, particularly Georgia Avenue.

“We cannot afford slower emergency response times if emergency vehicles are stuck in traffic,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement.

The balance of the 17.9 miles will open late this year or in early 2012, with the eastern end of the road tying into Interstate 95.

Nearly half of the ICC’s cost falls on MdTA, which runs the state’s other toll facilities. The authority’s $1.23 billion in bonds will be paid with future toll revenues.

Bonds paid with future federal highway aid (called GARVEE bonds, for Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles) cover $750 million of the highway’s cost. The Maryland Transportation Trust Fund kicked in $180 million and the state’s general account added another $265 million. Maryland will have to come up with another $103 million starting in fiscal 2015 to cover the balance of the construction costs.

Crucial link

Supporters said the investment will provide a crucial link between high-tech employment and education centers in the state and other assets like Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

“It’s about tying together the higher education in Baltimore, the resources they have there and the resources here, our technology community with the one in Prince George’s, and the one in Baltimore,” said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, D-Montgomery.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker said the road’s opening was a “vital step” to growing the region’s economy.

And Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, called the road a “relief valve” for a region that has become one of the most congested in the country.

According to NAVTEQ, a traffic monitoring firm, Washington has the second-worst rush hour traffic in the country, behind New York.

GBC’s support

The ICC also enjoys support outside the Washington suburbs, including from the Greater Baltimore Committee.

“It is a statewide project that helps promote statewide economic growth,” said GBC President and CEO Donald C. Fry.

But, Fry and other transportation advocates said the ICC could be the one of the last undertakings of its size in the state for the foreseeable future. Beyond the express toll lanes being added to I-95 in Baltimore — a project that had to be scaled back due to MdTA’s ballooning debt obligations — the state does not have money lined up for large transportation projects in the pipeline.

The $1.8 billion Red Line in Baltimore and $1.7 billion Purple Line in Prince George’s and Montgomery have received state dollars incrementally, but the state is waiting for large federal outlays to cover at least half of the project costs.

Fry, a former lawmaker who sat on budget-setting committees in both houses of the General Assembly, said the reliance on tolls in the ICC could become more common as the state seeks new ways to pay for transportation projects.

The state has already explored public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects, leasing the Seagirt Marine Terminal to a private port operator that will cover the costs of expanding the terminal.

State lawmakers have introduced a host of proposals this year to raise more transportation dollars, including adding up to 10 cents to the gasoline tax and raising vehicle registration fees.

“There’s just no money in the trust fund to build anything right now, no Red Line, Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway,” said Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola.

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