WASHINGTON — Since opening last year, the Intercounty Connector has provided thousands of Maryland motorists with their first direct, congestion-free drive between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Gleeful drivers say the highway has cut up to a half-hour off their east-west trips between the busy commercial corridors of Interstates 95 and 270. But six months after the latest stretch of the ICC opened, concerns persist about the cost of such convenience — in traffic noise, pricey tolls and projects passed over in the face of the ICC’s $2.56 billion construction costs.
What many people — fans and critics alike — notice most about the ICC is what’s missing: cars. The 18.8-mile road feels strikingly empty. During a recent morning rush, there were long stretches of open asphalt — a rare find in the often bumper-to-bumper Washington region. Motorists complain that so much open space makes it easy to drift over the 55-mph speed limit. The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the ICC, is reviewing calls to raise the maximum speed.
Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), a longtime ICC critic, said it’s frustrating to watch a new multibillion-dollar highway go under-used. He attributes the empty feel to high tolls, which are up to $4 one way during rush hours for cars and up to $30 one way for the largest trucks.
“You have I-270 that’s a parking lot many days carrying 10 times as many people as the ICC,” Andrews said. “It’s just a reminder of how that (highway construction) money could have been better spent.”
For Justin Brown, the six-lane road saves 10 minutes on his morning bakery deliveries to a Giant grocery store off I-95 and a Safeway off Briggs Chaney Road. Brown said he takes the ICC daily to avoid traffic jams on Route 29. He said it’s well worth the 70-cent toll to travel even one exit.
“For my business, being on time is of the essence,” Brown said Thursday during a hurried stop at a McDonald’s near Beltsville.
Harold Bartlett, the MTA’s executive secretary, said vehicle volumes are right at — and in some segments above — expectations for the six-month mark. In April, an average of 30,000 vehicles traveled the ICC’s western portion and an average of 20,000 vehicles used the eastern half on weekdays, he said. Last year, the state projected a weekday range of 19,700 to 26,900 vehicles for April, an MTA spokeswoman said. Those projections closely matched estimates made in 2009, before the first part of the ICC opened in February 2011, she said.
Bartlett said it will take at least three years for traffic to ramp up as motorists grow accustomed to using the ICC. The highway was designed to carry traffic volumes projected for 2030.
“I wouldn’t want to spend $2.5 billion for a highway that on the day you open feels full,” Bartlett said. “I want to build a highway with enough capacity for the future growth I know is going to occur.”
Bartlett said the state will raise tolls as needed to keep the ICC flowing freely.
But motorists such as Natalie Sando, who lives in the Derwood area of Rockville, said the tolls are already too high. Sando said she finds the ICC convenient three days a week to get to a human resources client near I-95, but only because her company pays the $4 toll each way.
“That’s $8 a day” in tolls, Sando said as she waited at a Starbucks drive-through in Burtonsville. “That’s crazy.”
AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson said he expects that motorists will gradually warm to the idea of paying to avoid the free but slower east-west routes: the Capital Beltway or indirect and narrow local roads.
“If you need to get from I-270 to I-95 fast in upper Montgomery County,” Anderson said, “it’s a bargain.”
The ICC has cut the morning drive between Rockville and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport by an average of 15 minutes compared with that of local roads. It beats the Beltway route by an average of 34 minutes, according to a recent analysis by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Some ICC motorists are apparently saving time another way: speeding. Out of 4,200 vehicle stops since November, police have issued 598 citations and 1,098 warnings for speeding, according to the MTA.
Bartlett said the MTA is considering raising the speed limit. He said the agency will weigh the time savings — 11 / 2 minutes over the entire ICC if the limit is raised from 55 to 60 — against the potential safety risks.
For Bob Slepitza and other residents in the Fairland Estates subdivision of Silver Spring, the ICC is a particularly noisy new neighbor. When a breeze blows from the direction of an ICC bridge, Slepitza said, “it honestly sounds like you’re standing next to a runway and a plane is taking off.”
ICC spokesman Ray Feldmann said state officials are meeting with residents about noise concerns but can’t do much to help. He said the state followed federal criteria in determining which neighborhoods qualified for sound walls, based on preexisting ambient sound levels and computer models projecting future highway noise.
John Speakman, who writes the ICC Noise blog, said state officials told him that the sound wall behind his house off Briggs Chaney Road would make life just as quiet, if not quieter, than when his house faced thick woods. But Speakman said he’s been “blown away” by the ICC noise, which he said can be heard over the television and requires speaking up to be heard in his back yard.
“You just don’t expect this kind of noise in the ‘burbs,” Speakman said. “We’d like to find a way to work with (the state) to try to mitigate some of the noise.”
Feldmann said state officials have told residents that sound walls would reduce, at most, half the ICC noise. He said highway designers lowered the road, narrowed its footprint and called for noise-abating berms where possible.
The state, he said, planted “hundreds” of trees since November to try to further buffer the neighborhoods, but there are no plans to build additional sound walls or berms.
“You get to the point where you have to tell folks this is the best we can do under the guidelines we have,” Feldmann said.
The state says the pre-construction sound projections were accurate. Feldmann said highway officials do not return to communities to measure how a highway’s actual noise levels compare with the pre-construction computer projections that determined whether a sound wall was necessary.
Meanwhile, construction continues. Crews are fortifying concrete overpasses between Interstate 370 and Georgia Avenue, where hairline cracks were discovered last fall. The work, which requires occasional lane closures, will prevent the cracks from spreading and help the bridges to reach their design age of 50 to 75 years, Feldmann said. The overpasses remain open and safe, he said. The contractor is paying all the repair costs.
Construction is also scheduled to begin this summer on the highway’s last segment — a one-mile section between I-95 and U.S. Route 1, as well as additional lanes along I-95 between the ICC and Route 198. That remaining work is expected to be finished by early 2014, Feldmann said.