High hopes for ICC, as major leg set to open Tuesday -- Gazette.Net


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This story was corrected on Nov. 18, 2011. An explanation follows.

As the Intercounty Connector, the $2.57 billion highway project first pitched almost a decade ago, opens its second leg next week, linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, many businesses hope commercial opportunities come along for the ride.

But others still question whether the savings the connection is expected to offer in driving time and fuel expenses will be offset by the tolls.

The ICC, officially Route 200, is an 18-mile toll highway that since February has linked Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg, via I-370, to Georgia Avenue. Come Tuesday, a 10.7-mile leg will open from Georgia Avenue to I-95 in Prince George’s, with the final short leg to Route 1, about a mile, expected to open in 2014.

Construction started in November 2007. The ICC was a campaign promise made by Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. during his successful run for governor in 2002.

“For us, it’s huge because it’s so close. It’s right here near the Shady Grove Metro station. And now it brings us right to I-95,” said Marilyn Balcombe, executive director of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce. “The access to the airport is key to us.”

One of the major goals envisioned for the ICC is to expedite traffic from Montgomery County to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Linthicum.

The ICC will slash that trip to 31 minutes from 71 minutes, said Paul Wiedefeld, executive director of the airport. More than 40 percent of the airport’s vehicular traffic comes from the Washington, D.C., region, he said.

Increasing accessibility to BWI should pull more business from Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia, Wiedefeld said.

“Montgomery County travelers know they can go right or they can go left,” he said. “This literally brings the airport that much closer to Montgomery County.”

Wiedefeld does not expect the ICC’s tolls to have much impact on its use.

“For the air traveler, what’s more important is the value of their time and predictability. That takes precedence over tolls,” he said.

Using the computerized E-ZPass system, a full trip on the ICC will cost from $4.00 to $30.00 during weekday rush hour, depending on the size of the vehicle. That will drop to $3.20 to $24.00 during off-peak hours, while tolls from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. will range from $1.60 to $12.00. Costs are higher for drivers without the E-ZPass; they will be billed through the state’s video-tolling technology, which takes a picture of a passing vehicle’s license plate and sends the owner a bill.

Boost for BWI

Business travelers are likely to realize that the predictability of arrival times justifies the cost, while less-frequent drivers are unlikely to mind the one-time hit, Wiedefeld said.

The ICC’s completion is particularly timely, as BWI prepares to embark on a $100 million expansion that will add 8,500 square feet of food and retail space, a nine-lane security checkpoint and a connector for easier movement among its A, B and C concourses, said Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for BWI.

More than 22.5 million passengers have flown to and from BWI from October 2010 through September, and the airport could break its record of 21.9 million passengers set in 2010, according to the airport’s monthly statistical report. July’s 2.2 million passengers was the airport’s most for the month, Dean said.

The expansion is set for completion in 2013.

“We’ve very excited about the ICC opening. It comes at the perfect time with the holiday season opening up,” Wiedefeld said

Passenger growth at BWI has increased in 26 of the last 28 months, with the airport setting monthly records in 15 of the past 17 months, Dean said.

Wiedefeld added the ICC also could encourage more employment at BWI, as it makes it more convenient for people to get to their jobs. More than 12,000 people work at BWI.

Easier access to BWI could boost economic development in Montgomery County, Balcombe said.

“I think the trend over time will be different traffic patterns,” she said.

Doug Wrenn, a principal with Rodgers Consulting in Germantown and former chairman of Balcombe’s chamber, said the new connection to I-95 could make Montgomery sites more attractive, especially along the I-270 Corridor. Rodgers Consulting is a land-use consulting firm.

He said his younger employees who can’t afford to live in Montgomery also will benefit from the ICC, as it will shorten their commutes.

“It will make this area more competitive to other employer locations,” he said.

Konterra primed to gain

On the other side of ICC, Laurel businesses also are looking forward to the changes the ICC will bring.

“As one of Howard County's leading employers located off Route 29 and near the ICC, we're supportive of efforts that help to ease the commute of our employees,” Melanie Ortel, spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, which has its regional headquarters in Laurel, said in an email to The Gazette.

Verizon’s Laurel division has more than 1,000 employees.

“The ICC seems to be a welcome enhancement to help ease the commute of many,” Ortel said.

Also in Laurel, Konterra, a 2,200-acre mixed-use development, stands to gain from the ICC, particularly once its last leg to Route 1 opens. Route 1 is just outside Konterra.

“From our standpoint, it will be interesting to see what happens. Everyone’s waiting to see,” said Caleb Gould, who is developing the project with his father, Kingdon Gould Jr.

The Goulds entered into a joint agreement with the state in April to donate the 240 acres necessary for the final leg of the ICC.

Konterra has allotted more than $75 million to build more roads to connect to the ICC and surrounding areas in the next two years, Caleb Gould said. The project is currently focused on its town center and working on luring retail, he said

The ICC is “a market game-changer,” Caleb Gould said, as for years Capital Beltway traffic has been unpredictable and has frequent logjams. “For Prince George’s and Konterra, it’s really going to change the marketability of this area and the whole I-95 corridor.”

Difficulty in getting to I-270 from Prince George’s has led to limited competition along I-95 for the kinds of companies that located along I-270.

“I think it will bring more high-quality office and retail,” Caleb Gould said. “There will be more communication between the counties.”

Gary Michael of NAI Michael Co. in Lanham said the ICC might foster more collaboration between businesses in the counties.

The region’s population has grown significantly in recent years, “but essentially we’ve had the same highway system,” said Geoffrey Pohanka, president of Pohanka Automotive in Marlow Heights. “It might take a while to see how people use it. I think it will help improve people’s quality of life.”

Both Michael and Pohanka are members of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, which supported building the ICC.

Jury still out for truckers

The trucking industry remains more wary of the ICC’s benefits.

Most truckers will need to perform a cost-benefit analysis to determine if the reduction in travel time and fuel costs is worth the tolls, said Louis Campion, president of the 900-member Maryland Motor Truck Association in Maryland.

“We don’t really know yet,” he said, adding that the association supported the ICC for providing a vital link between the interstate corridors.

Large businesses such as movers with more flexible rates might prefer the ICC, he said, while smaller businesses such as independent contractors or small delivery companies with flat rates might find it less helpful.

“Small businesses are priced out by using the ICC,” Campion said.

Campion said that while the association has toll concerns, it recognizes that the state chose its tolls from the lowest approved ranges. He said the state also can evaluate the tolls later, depending on the traffic the ICC receives.

“The association doesn’t oppose tolls to a new capacity road as long as we still have the choice to use the old one,” he said.

Balcombe said her members are disappointed with the tolls, but they also understand the costs of these projects.

“If tolls are going to help pay for the infrastructure improvements this area needs, then so be it,” she said.

lrobbins@gazette.net

The original version of this story reported the toll rates for the first open section of the ICC as if they applied to the full length from I-370 to I-95.