The Road Less Traveled

The Intercounty Connector promised a lot of things to Montgomery County residents. But with traffic and revenue far lower than projected, some people are asking: Was the highway all hype?



Where’s the traffic? Critics point to the Intercounty Connector’s often empty travel lanes, like these at the Route 29 interchange in Silver Spring, as proof that the road was unnecessary. Photo courtesy of Maryland Department of Transportation

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Driven on the Intercounty Connector lately? No? You’re not alone. Many haven’t.

The 18.8-mile highway—the first stretch of which opened two and a half years ago after great hype and amid great controversy—is the road less traveled. Traffic counts are well below early projections, and revenue from tolls—needed to pay off the bonds that were sold to build the road—is far less than originally anticipated.

The initial estimated cost of $1 billion has ballooned to $2.4 billion—or as much as $4 billion if you include interest payments. Consequently, all tolls on Maryland highways, bridges and tunnels have been raised in part to help pay for the ICC. Every driver who passes through the two Baltimore harbor tunnels, goes over the Francis Scott Key, Chesapeake Bay or Harry Nice bridges, or speeds along the John F. Kennedy portion of Interstate 95 north of Baltimore is helping to pay for the highway, which currently extends from the I-370 spur off I-270 to I-95. (Eventually it will continue as a four-lane road another nine-tenths of a mile east to U.S. Route 1, with the last section’s completion scheduled for July 2014.)

Meanwhile, $180 million is coming out of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to pay bondholders—money that critics say could otherwise be spent on mass transit, such as the Purple Line or the up-county Corridor Cities Transitway, and on improvements to secondary roads and intersections. At the same time, Maryland has committed future federal funds to make payments to ICC bondholders.

The story of the ICC is a bit like the invasion of Iraq, a march to war in which the highway hawks—developers, development lawyers and contractors—held sway while critics were ridiculed as knee-jerk tree huggers and opponents of economic growth. “They inflated the benefits, minimized the damages,” says Greg Smith, who led a band of citizen activists against the highway.

Doug Duncan, former county executive and current candidate for that office.Doug Duncan, who was Montgomery County’s executive at the time, claimed the ICC would result in development. That has yet to occur, though Duncan puts the blame on an “anti-business climate” fostered, in his view, by the current county government.

Early boosters, including Duncan, predicted the ICC would relieve congestion and improve safety on the Beltway. Seeking to unseat highway opponents in the 2002 election, Duncan called ICC critics “the council’s Congestion Coalition” and asserted, “We will not solve the traffic mess without an ICC.”

For business groups, the ICC was a “litmus test,” according to councilmember Phil Andrews, an ICC critic who alone survived the campaign waged that year by the highway’s supporters. When studies discounted Beltway improvement from the ICC, supporters then said it would relieve traffic on local roads, speed traffic bound for Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and spur economic growth. The media hyped the highway, too. From 1997 to 1999, The Washington Post ran six pro-ICC editorials.

Tolls were barely discussed. And hypothetical figures buried in a 2004 state consultant’s report marked “confidential” are lower than tolls currently being charged ($8 round-trip, end-to-end, for cars and $60 for trucks, during rush hours). There’s talk now of lowering tolls to attract more drivers. The speed limit was raised from 55 to 60 mph in March to that same end. But with Maryland Transportation Authority police aggressively issuing citations to speeders, there’s a further disincentive to use it.  

To pay for other road improvements the state cannot afford—thanks largely, critics say, to the ICC—the Maryland General Assembly this year pumped $880 million more into the depleted Transportation Trust Fund by increasing the gasoline tax for the first time in 21 years. And tolls increased on state highways—except for the ICC—in July under the second phase of increases first approved by the Maryland Transportation Authority in 2011. All told, the higher tolls are expected to raise $225 million by 2014, which will pay for debt service on the ICC and I-95 improvements and express lanes project and repairs to bridges, tunnels and roads, according to John Sales, a Maryland Transportation Authority spokesman.

The ICC is the Pac-Man of roads, critics charge, eating up all the transportation dollars in sight, now and for years to come.

“What a waste of money,” says Marc Elrich, a county councilmember and longtime ICC opponent.

Supporters have their own comebacks, of course: The ICC isn’t supposed to be crowded, they say; traffic was supposed to grow gradually. The outsized cost of the highway? The result of delays; if environmentalists and those advocating slow growth hadn’t fought it for so long, it could have been completed sooner for less, with money left over for other projects. Tolls? The wave of the future; get used to them, county councilmember Nancy Floreen says, as drivers in many other states have.

The ICC is here, near and dear. Go for a drive, supporters say. Check it out.

Work on the first segment of the highway began in November 2007. And since the first stretch opened in February 2011, the message posted on the Maryland Transportation Authority website has been nothing if not consistent: “There are no traffic advisories at this time.”  

On a recent Sunday afternoon, there’s not another car in sight around its gently bending curves. And even when the Beltway and I-95 are in early rush-hour mode on a weekday afternoon, traffic remains light on the ICC. The highway has been promoted as a commercial truck route, too, but trucks are few on this particular weekday.

“Some days there is heavier traffic than on others,” says Duncan, who lives in Rockville and made construction of the ICC his top priority as county executive, an office he’s pursuing again in the 2014 election. “It’s never bumper to bumper, but it was never meant to be. It’s absolutely successful.”

Indeed, there are some residents who love the highway. Harvey and Lynn Berk, who live in White Oak in eastern Montgomery County, gladly spent $24 a month on ICC tolls to take their dog to and from their vet in Kentlands. “It’s expanded our horizon of places to go,” including  restaurants and movie theaters in the Gaithersburg area, Harvey Berk says, applauding its lack of congestion.

In 2003, state consultants predicted 52,013 to 56,175 vehicles would be driven on the ICC each day in the year 2012, yielding $58.9 million to $68 million in tolls. The actual average for 2012:  42,878 vehicles per day, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority. That’s about 18 percent fewer vehicles than conservatively projected and nearly 24 percent less than more optimistic projections. (Average daily Beltway traffic, by comparison, was 232,000 vehicles at the American Legion Bridge in 2010.)

And the total revenue in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012: $19.73 million—a third of the low-end projection of a decade ago. (Figures for this past fiscal year weren’t available at press time.) The higher projections were needed to finance the project even before its cost inflated, according to the 2003 document.

Duncan declines to comment on the shortfalls. “You have to talk to the state about the numbers,” he says. “They’re the ones who produced the numbers.”

 Few cars are heading toward the Georgia Avenue exit on the ICC at rush hour on this May day. Photo by Amanda SmallwoodIn fact, the state developed two sets of projections, both higher than actual usage so far. The higher numbers were in official documents presented to the public, bolstering the case for the highway and implying greater environmental impact with higher volumes. More conservative numbers were used for the bond rating agencies, “looking at the financial implications if traffic volumes are on the lower side,” according to Sales.   

Andrews, who lives in Gaithersburg and represents constituents who might be expected to use the highway, doesn’t drive the ICC. “People are voting with their steering wheels to stay off,” the councilmember says, adding that round-trips at rush hour can cost individuals up to $2,000 a year. Still, he wants people to use the highway since it’s there, which is why he proposes cutting tolls in half.

Sales’ response: Studies show that “the increases in traffic volumes are not great enough to offset the significantly lower revenues collected.”

Elrich, a Takoma Park resident, refuses on principle to use the ICC. “I’ve driven over it at rush hour on Georgia Avenue, look[ed] down and [seen] it’s empty,” he says.

Former Gov. Parris Glendening, who killed the highway only to see his successor resurrect it, also refuses to use the ICC. “I don’t see a lot of reason to go out of my way to pay a toll to save 18 minutes,” says Glendening, who lives in Annapolis and works in Washington as president of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute. Plus, “it’s philosophical. I just don’t agree with it.”

When it was first conceived 50 years ago as part of an outer Beltway, the highway was intended to cross the Potomac, bridging the iconic waterway to better ferry traffic between the burgeoning suburbs, office parks and international airports on both sides. But resistance to another river crossing, mostly in Maryland, killed that grand plan. What emerged in its place was a Maryland-only highway linking the I-270 and I-95 corridors that supporters said would shorten commuting times, spur economic growth and speed traffic to BWI Airport.

Opponents objected on several grounds: They said highways beget more sprawl. They cited state surveys that concluded traffic on the Beltway and arterial roads would actually increase if the ICC were built. Their arguments might have been valid, but they weren’t enough to stop it. So highway opponents invoked the National Environmental Policy Act, passed in 1969 during the Nixon administration. Any project of such magnitude would have to pass the NEPA test, which would require multiple environmental impact statements.

The stringent federal requirements allowed opponents entry into the federal courts, which alternately rejected the highway and demanded more studies regarding potential damage. The lawsuits ultimately succeeded in reducing the ICC’s impact on sensitive wetlands and species—in part by cutting the number of lanes from 12 to six and requiring “mitigation” projects. But environmentalists continued to pursue legal remedies. In November 2007, a federal judge dismissed their lawsuits. They took their case to a higher court but dropped it a year later after the state agreed to more environmental steps.

“Environmental mitigation caused them to clean up the crimes of previous development in that part of the county,” says Floreen, who was elected to the county council in 2002 on Duncan’s “End Gridlock” slate. “It was a good thing, but it drove up the cost.”

The ICC has had a bumpy road, to say the least.

Glendening, who supported the highway when he was Prince George’s county executive in the 1980s, changed his mind after he became governor in the 1990s. “When I got into [state] office and looked at it in detail, I moved against it,” he says. “We can’t think we can continue to solve traffic and congestion problems by building more highways and adding more lanes. We are losing all of our open space and doing immense damage to the climate. It is so unneeded. The state has to spend millions advertising to get people to ride it. And when I looked into the financing, think what we could have done with $4 billion.”  

In 1999, Glendening canceled plans for the highway, saying it “would be an environmental disaster.” He also tried to sell off the property that the state had acquired earlier for $25 million. He says his efforts were blocked by then-Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who preceded Glendening as governor and strongly supported the ICC. Even so, the project seemed dead.

The 2002 Montgomery County Council election was the game changer.

“I was so ticked the county council kept voting against the construction of the ICC over the years; that’s actually why I ran for council in 2002,” says Floreen, a former county planning board member. “The ICC had been planned forever, and it was a major infrastructure project that needed to be done. About the first vote I took when I arrived in Rockville was we voted to support the ICC, and that started the ball rolling with the county executive and the governor. It got fast-tracked and it got constructed.”

Indeed, Duncan’s “End Gridlock Team” campaigned on the promise that the ICC would “drastically ease traffic congestion and relieve gridlock for the entire region.” The slate’s brochure hammered the point home: “Tired of waiting in traffic? You can make a difference. Vote for Doug Duncan and County Council candidates committed to building the ICC and ending gridlock. …While our citizens are drowning in traffic, some members of the Montgomery County Council have stalled important projects, like the Intercounty Connector.”

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