Barnaby Walsh tries to imagine what his back yard in Derwood might look like with a highway 300 feet away.
He bought his house on Rydal Terrace in July 2001 without knowing that land for the proposed Intercounty Connector backed onto his property.
Now he wonders what the road might mean for the community where he has chosen to raise his young family.
"If it totally engulfs the view in the back, closer than I expect, and it's not done in a user-friendly way, it could be a monstrosity of a major highway going through my backyard," Walsh said.
For homeowners like Walsh, visions of the long-debated highway linking Interstate 270 near Gaithersburg with Interstate 95 near Laurel became a bit clearer last week when state and federal officials announced the two routes (and a third, no-build option) they would study over the next year.
State officials said the two routes -- one that generally follows an alignment that has been on the county's Master Plan for decades and a more northerly route -- have significant differences from those studied in 1997. But the arguments over the project are expected to be the same as they always have been, with environmentalists and others criticizing the highway as a sprawl generator that will blight neighborhoods and pave over fragile stream valleys.
State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said Monday that the routes being studied have been improved.
"A great deal of effort has been put into minimizing both environmental and community impacts by minimizing the footprint of the highway, extending bridges across delicate environmental watersheds, lowering the highway to reduce noise impact on communities and many other features," he said.
The new alignments may actually alleviate some environmental problems, Flanagan said, by improving stormwater management in neighboring communities built under outdated regulations.
"We will go back and undo that damage," he said. "We will actually improve water quality in areas that have been damaged."
ICC backers, including a majority of the county's elected officials, the Ehrlich administration and the business community, say the long-debated highway is the single most important project for cutting travel times in traffic-choked Montgomery.
But critics charge that either route will harm the environment and provide little traffic relief at a cost estimated to be $1.7 billion.
"It is totally unbelievable that they would argue that by building the ICC they can improve the environment," said County Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, one of three council members who oppose the ICC. "Their own studies said it's not going to change congestion levels that we see on 270 and 495. How can we justify spending $2 billion on a road that does so little and costs so much?"
The revised northern alignment also concerns the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the giant bi-county water and sewer agency. General Manager John R. Griffin has written to the state about his concerns that building the northern alignment on the watershed could harm water quality and reduce the amount of water headed for the Rocky Gorge reservoir near the Howard County line.
Montgomery County Council President Michael L. Subin (D-At large) of Gaithersburg said the majority of the council also opposes the northerly route "because one, the environmental impacts; two, the impacts to current residential dwellings; and three, the further north you go, the more you have to bend down and spend more time on the road."
Prince George's County Council Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Dist. 2) of Brentwood said he is concerned that only already developed areas would benefit from the ICC. Areas inside the Capital Beltway in Prince George's County with less development would not, he said.
"It exacerbates the 'region divided' phenomenon that we see in the Washington metropolitan area," he said. The Prince George's County Council has approved resolutions opposing the road.
Still, political support for the controversial roadway is widespread. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has fast-tracked the project, with a goal of breaking ground on it by the end of his first term in 2006. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) made the road a cornerstone of his 10-year, $10 million Go Montgomery! transportation plan and rode it to re-election last year. And six Montgomery County Council members were elected last year with agendas that included support for the road.
When Flanagan visits the County Council on Thursday, Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said he plans to push for the route that follows the county Master Plan.
"It is the alignment I think the communities have understood and have come to grips with," he said.
Knapp said it is too early to say if he would withdraw his support if the ICC does not follow the Master Plan route.
"But I think at this point we need to work hard to stay on that Master Plan alignment," he said.
No room for transit
One alignment generally follows the route outlined on Montgomery and Prince George's County master plans. It extends from I-270/I-370 near Shady Grove Road in Gaithersburg to U.S. Route 1 south of Laurel.
The second alignment is identical to the first until it crosses Georgia Avenue (Route 97). There it curves east and continues along the north and south sides of Route 198 before ending at Route 1 north of Muirkirk Road near Laurel The state is also considering ending the road at I-95.
Alternative routes will be considered near environmentally sensitive wetlands and parklands such as Rock Creek and Paint Branch and in areas near Norbeck, Spencerville and Old Gunpowder roads.
But either alignment will destroy hundreds of acres of parkland and wetlands that provide some of the last homes for wildlife in the county, argued Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society.
Fitzpatrick called the ICC "a recycled version of a 1950s transportation proposal" that has "substantial environmental problems with both alignments."
The 18-mile road is expected to be a toll road, perhaps with higher tolls during rush hours, said State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen, citing the success of variable pricing in California and Houston.
But ICC opponents argue that transit -- not new pavement -- is the answer to the state's traffic woes.
"Our past studies have shown that transit by itself really can't address the needs that have been identified," Pedersen said.
Transit is part of the solution: The proposals include high-speed bus routes connecting the Shady Grove, Glenmont and Greenbelt Metro stations and the MARC station on Muirkirk Road, Pedersen said.
Still, Duncan complained that the ICC is the only item on the Ehrlich administration's transportation agenda at a time when more is needed.
He cited lack of support for the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway and recent decisions to cut Metrobus service on certain Montgomery County routes.
"They're just working on the ICC and everything else is being deferred," said Duncan, who is reportedly interested in challenging Ehrlich in 2006. "There are other transportation issues around the state."
Staff Writers Matt Boyd and Steven T. Dennis and Jamie Wellington of Capital News Service contributed to this report.
The State Highway Administration will hold open houses:
* Nov. 13, 2-8:30 p.m. at
American Legion, 2 Main St., Laurel
* Nov. 15, 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. at Blake High School, 300 Norwood Road, Silver Spring
* Nov. 19, 28:30 p.m. at Bohrer Park Activity Center, 506
S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg
For details, go to www.iccstudy.org; comments may be e-mailed to email@example.com or by calling 1-866-462-0020.