Federal officials Monday night gave final approval to the ICC, the new interstate highway connecting Gaithersburg and Laurel. Within hours, Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich broke ground near Shady Grove, and construction will begin in earnest this fall.
Our position at BeyondDC pretty much mirrors Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan’s. Originally a supporter of the road, Duncan responded to the groundbreaking by saying “They have gutted the state dedicated transportation fund, cut transit and left future generations of Maryland to deal with the consequences. We must not be lulled into the belief that one road alone will solve our transportation challenges.” On its own merits, the ICC isn’t a bad highway, as highways go. It will densify parts of Montgomery County that long ago suburbanized, while diverting growth from still-rural parts of the I-270 corridor. It will make possible more commercial activity in the eastern part of the metropolitan area, making it more competitive with the west. It will better link suburban Maryland with Baltimore, theoretically helping to reinforce economic health in the latter.
The problem is that it all comes at a cost. Coming in at over $130 million per mile, the Maryland DOT has been fervently cutting transit projects around the state to pay for its new highway. The Corridor Cities and Bi-County Transitways are both likely to be downgraded to bus routes instead of rail. The CCT is being routed around walkable neighborhoods instead of through them because it’s cheaper, while one option for the BCT eliminates even the rapid part of Bus Rapid Transit, leaving the corridor with a simple surface bus. Baltimore’s grand rail plan was rewritten to favor buses, and the one new line undergoing active study (there is another extension in the works as well) is being pushed as a BRT corridor, with locally preferred subway off the table completely. In all cases the transit corridors are progressing slowly, if at all. It would be political suicide to cut them altogether, but with attention focused squarely on the ICC, MDOT has quietly put transit on the back burner. They’re not cancelled; they’re simply not being advanced.
If money were not an issue, we would like the ICC. But if building the ICC means no new transit (or just as bad: ineffective transit) in Maryland for a generation, it’s just not going to be worth it.