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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette(From left) James F. Ports Jr., deputy secretary of the state Department of Transportation; Montgomery County Councilman Michael J. Knapp; state Sen. John A. Giannetti; state Sen. Jennie Forehand; Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.; state Sen. Rona E. Kramer; and Del. Carol S. Petzold shovel dirt at the ceremonial groundbreaking for a field office and geotechnical staging area for the Intercounty Connector by Route 97 in Olney on Thursday.
But others weren’t so sure.
Ehrlich (R) and supporters of the controversial $2.4 billion six-lane highway broke ground for a field office and staging area near Olney that will be used to test soil conditions along the road’s alignment.
Establishing the site is the first concrete step toward laying the 18 miles of asphalt that will connect Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
As he shoveled dirt from a pile dumped on a service road off Georgia Avenue near Route 28, Ehrlich said the ceremony marked ‘‘the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.”
However, construction of the first, and westernmost, segment of the project will not begin at the site until spring. Contracts will not be awarded until early 2007.
Which begs the question: Is there yet another groundbreaking in the future?
‘‘Possibly,” said David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration. ‘‘We don’t know the answer to that question right now. We don’t know what next spring is going to bring.”
State officials insisted Thursday’s photo op was the official groundbreaking for ICC construction, a promise Ehrlich made four years ago.
Asked if there would be another groundbreaking in the spring when roadwork begins, Ehrlich smiled and replied, ‘‘I don’t think so, but that’s a good idea.”
The timing was not lost on opponents of the road nor Ehrlich’s opponent in the general election.
More than a dozen protesters, stationed about 15 yards from the ceremony behind orange traffic cones, kept up a constant commentary as the governor and other elected officials spoke.
‘‘You should hold your photo op in someone’s house you’re taking!” one protester shouted.
Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s campaign, struck a skeptical note.
‘‘Mayor O’Malley supports the ICC and looks forward to the day when we can move beyond symbolic groundbreakings to the day when contracts are actually signed and work on this project begins,” Abbruzzese said. ‘‘... We’ll look forward to three or four more [groundbreakings] before Nov. 7.”
Thursday’s ceremony, in the final month of a hard-fought gubernatorial campaign by a Republican governor seeking re-election, presents a case of official public business intersecting with a photo opportunity that shows a political promise kept.
On May 30, Ehrlich led a ceremonial mulching of a tree in Gaithersburg in announcing the federal government’s final approval of the highway. At the time, he said the mulching was evidence that he had made good on his promise to break ground on the ICC by fall 2006.
Getting the ICC this far has involved decades of political wrangling and vociferous opposition from groups that say the highway will destroy neighborhoods and environmentally sensitive areas.
‘‘It has been 50 years in the making, and today the dream comes true,” Ehrlich reiterated Thursday afternoon. ‘‘It is time to begin building this highway that will reduce congestion on local roads, improve safety and open the door to economic opportunities throughout Central Maryland and the entire state.”
State officials have emphasized the 14,000 jobs that a University of Maryland study said the project will generate and the $270 million in environmental remediation that they say will undo the damage of past highway engineering practices.
The limited-access toll road will provide an east-west link between Montgomery County’s Interstate 270 corridor at I-370 in Gaithersburg and U.S. Route 1 and I-95 in Laurel. Portions of the highway are expected to be complete in 2010 and 2011.
Last week’s ceremony was held on a 1.25-acre site that will house a construction trailer. A bulldozer, a backhoe and a drill rig that will take soil samples along the road’s path are already in place.
Ehrlich touted efforts by state highway and elected officials to work with neighbors so that the road will run under Georgia Avenue, minimizing any disturbance of neighborhoods. Original plans called for the road to cross above Georgia Avenue.
Ehrlich singled out the efforts of Sen. Rona E. Kramer (D-Dist. 14) of Olney. She said the community was satisfied with plans for the road. ‘‘Except for the community who lives here!” one protester retorted.
Some Democrats who pushed for the highway’s construction were conspicuously absent, including U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (Dist. 4) of Mitchellville and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who sent an aide.
Ehrlich thanked Wynn for his support.
‘‘I am proud to have secured $19.3 million in federal funding for this important project,” Wynn said in a statement. ‘‘I hope that this announcement will help spur progress on the Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway.”
David S. Weaver, a Duncan spokesman, called the groundbreaking ‘‘another step in the right direction.”
Duncan ‘‘broke the political gridlock that helped stall this project for more than 50 years” by pushing a slate of pro-ICC candidates who were elected to the Montgomery County Council four years ago, he said.
As for any additional roadblocks the project could face, Weaver said, ‘‘There’s always the possibility that those who support the status quo, those who support continued gridlock could file lawsuits.”
That is something opponents are considering, said Laura Olsen, assistant director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. ‘‘This road has many more hurdles left to cross,” she said, adding that her group has begun to hear rumblings from state legislators who have reservations about so much money being spent on one road in Montgomery County.