Saturday, March 5, 2011

The ICC and us

Do you live in the upper part of Montgomery County? Have you driven or ridden on the newly opened Intercounty Connector (MD 200) since it opened last week? If so, please share some of your experiences with this blog. I'd love to hear from you! My experiences are reported below.

As most of you know, I am a resident of Olney, Maryland. As such I have watched the ICC grow from the moving mounds of dirt a few short years ago once Governor O'Malley gave it the green light. However, since I have opposed this road for most of my more than 30 years residence in this county, I have not celebrated this new highway. Last week saw state and county leaders congregate to cut the ribbon and applaud this long trumpeted construction. Billions of dollars have been borrowed to pay for this road. Our transportation funds are now tapped out. But will the road address its promise? We were told that the local roads would be freed of the commuters and cut through traffic and large trucks would now have a way to reach BWI and Route 95. However with only a third of this road now opened, this is a question which remains to be answered. The environmental compromises promised bike lanes and express buses and monitoring of air quality and stream valley runoffs. To this date, the water quality has been an ongoing problem and noise and pollution remain current concerns. The bike lanes were reduced due to supposed cost restraints. The express buses to BWI/Marshall Airport and Fort Meade are starting up now.

However, in an attempt to be objective, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I drove onto I-270 northbound, exited onto a very bumpy I-370 near Shady Grove Road and arrived unceremoniously onto the new Route 200. I traveled across nearly empty lanes which were smooth and gently curved as they crossed rolling hills. The unexpected tunnel was bright and attractive. Natural hues were displayed across miles of unnatural sound barrier walls. The signage and exit lane warnings were not as clear as they might have been. Surprisingly large overhead automatic toll collectors loomed ominously across the roadways; one is on notice that these will not be avoided. State Police cars blinked their displeasure as the patrols ticketed traffic offenders. Wide open roads seem like such an invitation to speed, but they are most definitely not. The journey was over in just a few minutes as I exited smoothly onto Route 97 north. For your information, the speed limit is 55, which seems painfully slow for such low traffic volume.

But as bucolic as this ride was, a glance along the route showed the cost. The roadside was populated by mini-trees which had replaced vibrant long standing forests. The deforestation was extensive and appeared excessive. Thick underbrush which previously provided habitat for many small animals had disappeared. The area is now left even more vulnerable to flooding and storm water runoff. The parklands of Lake Needwood were bisected. Farms and homes, former meadows and hills were no longer. Social costs to neighborhoods along the route are yet to be measured as some homes and neighborhoods were isolated and walled off. Although construction has ceased, the drone of traffic will continue to intrude upon sleeping and waking hours for those along the routes.

True, the road was opened before it is completed. Some may even say it is not yet ready and the rush to open was premature. Many in Olney requested that the local portion of the road opening be delayed until the entire route was finished. The community was told that the traffic urgency was too great to leave unabated. Now, this community has seen some of its worst dreams borne out. Traffic along the local roads at rush hours is not improved. It is far worse than promised. The northbound merge lanes along Georgia Avenue at the entrance to 200 west bound are confusing, poorly striped, and dimly illuminated. Last week was problematic as local road travelers and exiting drivers all jockeyed for some of the same landscape. Drivers facing the ICC entrance suddenly scrambled right as they did not wish to enter the highway. Northbound evening traffic was backed up almost a mile, south of Norbeck Road at Georgia Avenue and gridlock was the order of the day. Granted there has been significant email dialogue, on-site monitoring and communication with the administrators of the State Highway Administration and the ICC project staff, but even they admitted that the snafus of last week were unexpected. The blame was placed on poor traffic control by the county and malfunctioning traffic cameras, also under county control. But those were not the only problems. Better striping, lighting and signage are promised and some improvements are said to be occurring soon.

WTOP radio has reported that the ICC is significantly underperforming traffic count expectations on these opening days. In these free two week trial periods traffic has averaged around 30,000 cars per day. The big rigs, which were expected to easily pay the toll fees have not yet materialized in large numbers. These drivers must realize that despite the promised seven minutes travel time from Shady Grove to Norbeck, the route then means an extra 30 minutes on local roads, and with gas prices spiking lately, they may not wish to sit longer in traffic. Commuters are also doing the math. One of my co-workers travels from Rockville to Columbia daily. Just this small stretch of road would cost her more than $60.00 a month if she traveled both ways at rush hour, and she still would have to pay the MD transponder fee and surcharges. Is it any wonder that many have called this highway the Lexus road?

The road is here to stay and we as taxpayers will be paying for it for a long time. It appears to me that we need to be vigilant, keep our eyes on what is said and then done and keep our eyes on the road. The second portion is due to open within the year if all goes well. It is possible that local traffic will abate by then. I am counting on each of you to keep us all apprised of the saga of the ICC as it unfolds throughout the next few months.


  1. I, too, took my first and only ride on the ICC last week. I do not intend to use it for several reasons.

    State officials made very bad decisions all along the way, including setting the highest-in-the-country toll rates per mile of roadway. But they had to do that because they mortgaged the state's future federal transportation funds by floating Garvee bonds to pay for this road.

    The ding-dongs who decided to charge $18/year just for the pleasure of having a Maryland EZPass Account got themselves in an upside down contract and the Maryland EZPass holder is stuck to make up the payment for their bad contracting decisions.

    They have shared toll revenue and usage projections that are based on absurd criteria. Ain't no way either target will be hit. Meanwhile, the taxpayers (and tollpayers) will be making up for their poor decisions for decades.

    ... then don't get me started about the additional traffic congestion on local roads (from others like me who won't use this road) and the impact on the environment from all the destruction.

    Sharon, you and I share similar feelings about what I now term "The InterCollosal Calamity."

  2. I remember going to public hearings for the ICC 30 years ago, and I was amazed that it took so long to approve and built it. I have to think that the ICC was inevitable, as are future roads and highways to serve our increasing (and increasingly dense) population.

    As for the ICC itself, I don't think Olney is well-served by the first open stretch, but it wasn't intended for us. Just the same, it may alleviate some of the traffic on Muncaster Mill, especially the lights at Redland and Shady Grove, as more vehicles from elsewhere now have an alternative. And, if my plans call for me to head to Gaithersburg at a time when one of the Redland churches has traffic tied up, you can bet I'll take the ICC to avoid sitting in traffic.

    As for the road itself, I think it's a very nice drive through the area. It doesn't seem like a highway (yet), and we'll all get used to the lane markings and exit patterns in due time. We always do, or we improve them when necessary. I don't know why Georgia Avenue got left-turn exits instead of a cloverleaf, and I can't stand the new traffic lights, but it appears that this system makes it easier for cars to exit the ICC onto Georgia. Time will tell if this works or not.

    As I was driving it today, I thought that we ought to install speed cameras into the overhead toll systems. Fully aware that I would get the first ticket, I have to think that keeping drivers at the same speed would help traffic flow smoothly. I've often thought that the reason I-95 to Richmond gets backed up is not because of the volume of traffic alone. Rather, it's because of the drivers who speed up until they get stuck, hit their brakes, and cause a chain reaction of brake lights behind them. Keeping traffic steady might avoid the ebb and flow of cars jockeying for the lead position in the great race!

    Like many of us, I will rarely use the ICC because it's a toll road. I'll leave that to the cross-county commuters, and I'll thank them for staying off our local roads.

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