Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

ICC opponents keep up battle against highway

Activists hold community forums to spread awareness

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Opponents of the Intercounty Connector vow to continue fighting the project, even as the road becomes closer to reality with the announcement earlier this month that work will begin in eastern Montgomery County.

‘‘We’re going to keep pushing the message out there,” said Greg Smith, a co-founder of the advocacy group Community Research and an opponent of the ICC for more than a decade.

Community Research partnered with multiple environmental and community groups last month to hold two forums about the ICC, one at Leisure World, the other at Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School in Silver Spring. At both meetings, organizers presented information on the ICC’s potential impacts on public health and the environment as well as its overall costs.

The information was based on the state’s own studies, which forum organizers said gloss over some of the ICC’s impacts and in other cases were done incorrectly or do not take into account public comments.

For example, the total cost of the ICC is estimated at $2.4 billion on the project’s Web site, but opponents point to a 2006 Maryland Department of Transportation estimate that said the price will be at least $3.1 billion.

‘‘What we wanted to do was shine a light on facts from the state’s own study so people are more aware of what the road can and can’t do,” said Dolores Milmoe, Maryland conservation associate with the Audubon Naturalist Society and a longtime ICC opponent.

One of the main topics at the Drew forum was air pollution because Drew’s playing fields would be within 90 yards of the ICC. Tiffin Shewmake of Silver Spring spoke at the meeting both as an ICC opponent and parent of a fourth-grade Drew student with severe asthma and allergies who would be affected by the pollution. Shewmake had previously organized a neighborhood meeting for parents concerned about the ICC and sent letters to public officials expressing her opposition to the road.

Raising three children and working a full-time job leaves Shewmake little time to be an activist, but she said small measures from those opposed to the ICC would add up. ‘‘If everyone in the community did what I did, I think the road can be stopped,” she said.

The State Highway Administration has approved preliminary work, including surveys and field investigations, for four miles of the ICC from west of Route 29 to east of Interstate 95, including interchanges with both roads. The segment is scheduled for completion by the end of 2012, the SHA said. The entire ICC would connect I-270 in Montgomery County with I-95 and Route 1 in Prince George’s County.

David Buck, an SHA spokesman, said the agency has already addressed many of the ICC opponents’ concerns, including a seven-page letter sent to Leisure World in November responding to 20 questions on topics from air quality to traffic congestion. Environmental challenges to stop the ICC were denied in U.S. District Court last fall; a ruling is now under appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

Both Buck and Odessa L. Phillip, a community liaison for the ICC, said residents should continue contacting ICC officials. ‘‘It’s a difficult process,” Phillip said. ‘‘We want to minimize the impact.”

Residents also can contact the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, which is developing a system to respond quickly to community concerns and an internal group to stay on top of ICC issues, Director Bob Hoyt said. The agency has been involved with ICC planning, having done some of the environmental testing used by SHA in its studies of the road, he said.

‘‘DEP is making sure the ICC is constructed in an environmentally-friendly manner,” Hoyt said. ‘‘...It’s a priority of ours.”

Even though many people believe the ICC is coming, Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, an umbrella group of more than 40 environmental and civic organizations based in Washington, D.C., said it is never too late to oppose a highway.

Schwartz and Milmoe cited I-395, which was originally supposed to continue through Washington and into Prince George’s County. But opposition from District residents and the City of Takoma Park forced I-395 to end at New York Avenue.

‘‘We are passionate and completely committed to challenging this roadway,” Schwartz said of the ICC.