The Road Less Traveled | Page 2 of 2

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?

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Illustration by Amanda SmallwoodSupporting the End Gridlock slate was a business coalition calling itself Citizens for Quality Living (CQL). Neither the group’s website nor its fliers identified the coalition’s leaders or provided an address or phone number. In fact, members included the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors.

Targets of the coalition—including councilmember Andrews—filed a lawsuit alleging that the group had violated campaign finance laws by failing to file required reports. Ultimately, a three-judge panel ruled that CQL, which spent $15,000 on television ads, was not a “political committee” and had not broken any laws in listing candidates’ positions on the ICC.

“During the 2002 campaign,” Andrews says, “critics were marginalized by [CQL’s] claim that any elected official who doesn’t support the ICC doesn’t care about the fact you’re sitting in traffic.”

Once pro-ICC members gained a majority on the county council, the focus shifted to Annapolis. Robert Ehrlich, the former Republican congressman elected in 2002 to succeed Glendening, breathed new life into the seemingly dead highway, ordering the last of three environmental impact studies.

Just three months before Ehrlich’s election, President George W. Bush signed an executive order allowing certain environmentally sensitive highway projects to be fast-tracked. Of 75 applicants, 13 were chosen, and the ICC was one of them.

Meanwhile, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks seemingly had provided another argument for the ICC: The highway would be linked to national security. “Homeland Security—Providing a Secure Route in an Emergency,” said a Maryland Transportation Authority brochure touting the benefits of the ICC. That the highway did not provide an exit route from the nation’s capital was beside the point.  

Once the highway was a given, debate centered on which route would least damage the environment and which would provide the best access to BWI. The route that Ehrlich chose in 2005 did not veer northeast toward BWI—which would have made the trip to the airport shorter—but southeast, toward Konterra, the long-planned, mixed-use project of developer Kingdon Gould, just four miles north of the Beltway off Route 1. Major construction has yet to begin, but plans call for the development to include hotels, 4,500 residential units and 5.3 million square feet of offices, restaurants and shops.

“Sufficient access to the Interstate system will be critical for the Konterra property to develop into its full potential,” the State Highway Administration said in a 2004 report. That access would come by way of the ICC. In order to build ramps from the ICC into Konterra, the state paid the development’s owners $74 million for 240 acres. Earlier, the same land had been appraised at $32 million, though the Gould family had challenged the lower valuation.  

Gould and his corporations had long contributed to politicians supporting his development plans, and in January 2006, that amounted to seven checks of $4,000 each to Ehrlich as he was seeking re-election. The checks came from limited liability corporations linked to Gould, thereby sidestepping state election finance laws that limit individuals to a $4,000 contribution made to a single candidate.

Glendening notes that Gould and his associates had been top contributors to his campaigns when he supported the road—but not after he opposed it.  

“These projects are sort of like zombies,” Glendening says. “You kill them, they come right back.”

He attributes the ICC’s nine lives to the “construction-landowner complex,” something akin to the military-industrial complex President Dwight Eisenhower warned about as he was leaving office. “They will push for more and more roads,” Glendening says.

As with a military-industrial complex, the ICC had its own “revolving door,” as critics termed it. Alan Straus, the state’s ICC project manager in the 1990s, left to work for URS, an engineering, construction and technical services firm that became a leading consultant on the road’s construction. And Parker Williams, head of the State Highway Administration, found a new job with the consulting firm that received the contract on designing and developing the ICC’s electronic toll system.

Once the final decision was made to build the road, a way had to be found to pay for it.

More cars are traveling on the Norbeck Road overpass than on the ICC during rush hour on an early May evening. Photo by Amanda SmallwoodIn 2005, the state Legislature enacted a plan to move the ICC to the head of the line of state transportation projects and to pay for it largely with borrowed money. The interest payments over time bring the total cost to about $4 billion, compared with the $2.4 billion sticker price.

The largest chunk, $750 million, comes from so-called GARVEE bonds (for Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles). To service the GARVEE debt, the state agreed to divert significant amounts of anticipated future federal funds. There’s also a $516 million loan from the federal government; $264.9 million directly from the state’s general fund and bonds; $180 million in cash from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund; and $669 million from loans to be paid off partly from tolls generated by the ICC and seven other Maryland toll facilities.

That the ICC might be a toll road first came to light in a 1997 draft environmental impact statement—but only as a hypothetical. It came as a shock to many when the ICC not only became a toll road but a high-priced one.

Mike Landsman, a Bethesda resident, drives the ICC several times a week from Rockville to Baltimore for his job with an environmental consulting firm. But if his employer didn’t pay the tolls, he says, “I wouldn’t drive it as much. I plan to keep driving the ICC so long as my employer is paying for it. At rush hour, there’s nobody on there. I don’t think I’ve ever been on there when there’s actually been traffic.”

Floreen, the pro-highway councilmember, wishes “they’d given residents a year or so to get used to the road and then increase tolls incrementally, but they didn’t.” Then again, “nobody wants to pay for things,” she says. “That’s the way people are.”

Not only do people not want to pay, they actually don’t pay. According to a Maryland Transportation Authority report released in February, 34.2 percent of drivers using the ICC without an E-ZPass transponder weren’t paying the bills they later received in the mail, costing the system $5.1 million from November 2011 through November 2012. In the first half of 2012, a rental car company alone racked up $4,263 in unpaid tolls; a construction company, $2,241, according to The Washington Post.    

When the highway’s first segment opened in 2011, it was toll-free for two weeks, during which daily traffic counts reached 30,000. But with tolls in place, traffic had dropped to 11,490 less than two months later.

The apparent lack of public enthusiasm prompted the state to undertake a $2.8 million advertising campaign to promote the road.

Things seemed to be looking up last October. The Maryland Transportation Authority issued a press release asserting that ICC usage was “consistent with our projections,” with 35,000 vehicles daily using the westernmost segment and 26,000 the eastern segment. Unmentioned was that the numbers were consistent with 2009 projections, which were significantly lower than earlier forecasts. The more recent projections “reflect the impacts of the current economic recession and its effects [on development],” says Wilbur Smith Associates, the state consultant.

To encourage use of the road, the state also established five ICC bus routes, which it subsidizes heavily. So far, they’ve failed to catch on. In March, the Gaithersburg-BWI bus had 8,472 riders. The weekday rush-hour route from Frederick to College Park had 3,291 riders; Columbia to Bethesda and Gaithersburg to Fort Meade, fewer than 2,000; College Park to Germantown, only 123.

Compare those to the 28,176 who rode from Dunkirk in southern Maryland to the District, and the 17,861 from Columbia to Silver Spring. However, “they are much more mature routes with long established ridership bases,” Maryland Transportation Authority spokesman Terry Owens wrote in an April 29 email. Still, two weeks later, the MTA announced it was considering canceling three of the five ICC routes due to low ridership. The authority was planning to discontinue service on those routes in August.

As for the ICC promise of relieving traffic on other roads—if not the Beltway, then the arteries that bisect it—a study released in June by The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, under contract to the State Highway Administration, details traffic counts on local east-west roads both before and after the ICC opened. Among its findings: Traffic on alternate roads has decreased slightly. And drivers who use the ICC instead of local roads have cut their drive times in half, according to the study.

“There is some relief on surrounding roadways,” says Ron Kirby, director of transportation planning for COG. However, despite reports that the Washington area is one of the nation’s most congested, he says traffic is flat or declining throughout the region, as it is nationally.

“If you build it, he will come,” a voice whispers to Kevin Costner in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams.

That is, of course, the classic criticism of highways: that they will bring both traffic and development. So far, the ICC has induced neither. The highway may, Glendening says, be more of a Jurassic Park situation, a dinosaur the likes of which will not be seen again.  

The lower-than-projected traffic counts may be due not only to the recession but to changing lifestyles. More people are telecommuting and shopping online, rather than driving to stores. People under 25, seeking a more urban lifestyle, “are driving less, not more,” says Glendening, an apostle of smart growth around transit stations, “and baby boomers are moving to condos—600,000 seniors a year are giving up their car keys. It is happening nationwide.”  

COG’s Kirby agrees. “People don’t need to drive as much to get to work. Instead of driving to a bookstore, people are ordering from Amazon. There is just less travel.”

Is the ICC, then, a highway stuck in neutral?

“Over the long run, you can ask if the ICC is really necessary,” Kirby says.

“…But there is still a lot of travel out there. Eventually people will start to find the value of it. Demand will grow. How fast remains to be seen.”

ICC Supporters  |  Then—and Now

Nancy Floreen, Montgomery County councilmember since 2002: “It’s a desperately needed road. That’s why I’m in office, because of the ICC. The road got built, and that was the really important thing. My staff person texted me the other day: Thank god for the ICC. [They] live in Potomac. …[It was] only from taking the ICC that they made their plane [at BWI]. I think people will discover it over time.”

George Leventhal, Montgomery County councilmember since 2002: “I drive it all the time. It’s very convenient. There is a free flow of traffic. While the debate was going on, opponents said as soon as it opened, it would be clogged with traffic. That was a primary argument against it, that roads only induce traffic. Now opponents say nobody’s driving on it. The ICC provides a better road network.”

Doug Duncan, former county executive and current candidate for that office: “I’ve used it in the morning to avoid Beltway congestion and in the evening to do the same thing. I’ve driven it many times. It’s a great road. It’s a much easier way to get to [Interstate] 95 north[bound] rather than going on the Beltway. Some days there is heavier traffic than others. It’s never bumper to bumper, but was never meant to be that. It’s absolutely successful.”  

Eugene L. Meyer is a contributing editor for the magazine.

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