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Posted at 9:05 AM ET, 02/16/2011

Don't judge connector too quickly

By Robert Thomson

Redland Road.jpg
Intercounty Connector, still free of traffic, passes under Redland Road. (Thomson)

Connector Q&A l Crews rush to finish ICC l Map l Archive

We've gotten used to a transportation system in which most of the resources go to fixing things, rather than creating something new. So please forgive those of us who are transportation geeks for our current obsession with the Intercounty Connector, which is about to become the first brand new highway the D.C. area has seen in many a year.

As we build toward Tuesday's opening of the connector's first segment, we wonder what the driving experience will be like on the fresh pavement, will the traffic be light or heavy, will there be congestion problems around the entrances and exits.

My prediction: Whatever we see next week doesn't count. We won't be able to draw good conclusions about the role of the ICC in our transportation network the first week. We may not be able to draw conclusions till the whole thing is open in about a year.

1) The western segment opening at 6 a.m. Tuesday is about a third of the future length of the highway. We hope the connector will eventually ease traffic on the east-west routes -- such as they are -- through Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Over the next few weeks, I'll be looking to see what the first segment might do to ease traffic on roads like Muncaster Mill and Norbeck, and maybe MD 355, but it's difficult to see how the first step would provide significant relief -- significant in that I'd be hearing from lots of commuters arriving early at work.

2) The traffic pattern in the Georgia Avenue/Norbeck Road area is temporary. The Georgia Avenue interchange will not be fully open. The ramp just to the east at Norbeck Road will be open only until the rest of the highway is completed.

3) It's new. Anytime a traffic pattern changes on major roadways, it throws people off for a couple of weeks. Then most drivers get used to it, even if the pattern itself is not ideal for traffic flow.

4) It's free, at least for the first two weeks. So the drivers who get on the highway in the early days may not be those who choose to use it for their regular commutes, once the tolling starts.

5) Once variable rate tolling starts on March 7, drivers will have a new experience to deal with. The rates will be highest from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m. on weekdays. Will drivers shift their regular travel times so they go early or late?

6) Commuters are creatures of habit, and it takes a lot to shake them out of a route they've used for a long time. Many are likely to wait and see what happens with the connector before they try it themselves. Or they may simply wait till the whole thing is done before committing to it.

By Robert Thomson  | February 16, 2011; 9:05 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting, Construction, Maryland  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Intercounty Connector  
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I like the idea behind the ICC, but the toll makes it less likely that I will use it, especially such a hefty and variable toll.

Posted by: DCCubefarm | February 16, 2011 11:03 AM | Report abuse

I like the idea behind the ICC, but the toll makes it less likely that I will use it, especially such a hefty and variable toll.

Posted by: DCCubefarm | February 16, 2011 11:04 AM | Report abuse

I live in VA, so I don't know MD traffic at all.

I was looking at the ICC route. Tell me, is there really so much east/west traffic between East Middle of Nowhere, MD and West Middle of Nowhere, MD?

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | February 16, 2011 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Yes. The I-270/Rockville area is a major employment center, and there's lots of commuter traffic headed there from many directions - including the heavily-populated areas to the east (around Laurel, Columbia & suburbs closer to Balitmore).

Since there hasn't been a direct east-west highway connection, many of those commuters have been going south to use the Beltway (which adds to Beltway congestion).

With the new ICC, those commuters will have a direct route available to Rockville. That will not only makes their trips shorter, but will also help to relieve some of the Beltway congestion on the northern side.

For more, see

Posted by: jrmil | February 16, 2011 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Well, anything that keeps people off the Beltway is good by me.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | February 16, 2011 12:18 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: afsljafweljkjlfe, I totally agree with your premise about keeping people off the Beltway, but it's unclear whether that will actually happen. Maryland transportation officials are not billing the ICC as a break for the Beltway. Instead, they're saying they hope it will ease congestion on some of the less-known routes that many commuters use to go east-west, such as Norbeck, Randolph, Norwood, Briggs Chaney, Muncaster Mill, Shady Grove Road, Gude Drive, and so on.

Plus, I'm not sure that a Beltway commuter is going to find the opening of this short section so compelling that the commuter will want to change paths right away.

Many drivers will have to make a calculation about whether it's worth it to add a little ICC to other heavily traveled roads that would become part of their new route.

Here's the kind of switch that would make sense to me in the first phase: I live in Olney and work in Gaithersburg. My new route would be to drive south on Georgia Avenue to the ICC interchange, take the ICC west to Shady Grove and pick up I-370/270. I think that would save me some time over some of the roads I mentioned or the Beltway.

I'm hoping that starting next week, drivers will share their experiences about this sort of thing.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | February 16, 2011 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Thomson,

Prominent ICC proponents have claimed for years that the ICC would reduce traffic on the Beltway.

They've made that bogus claim even though every major agency study since at least the mid-1990s has shown the opposite.

Doug Duncan made that bogus claim in late 2002 when he asked the Bush administration to fast-track the ICC's environmental review. Then again, Duncan and others have also claimed that the ICC would enhance homeland security despite having no public study to back that up.

The 2006 EIS published by the SHA and the FHWA showed that the ICC would increase congestion on Beltway segments. And that's at lower toll rates than O'Malley is now charging.

Sure, the O'Malley administration and other folks have backed off a bit from claims that the ICC would decongest the Beltway, but....

$3 billion up in smoke.

Posted by: gpsmith1 | February 18, 2011 2:00 PM | Report abuse

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