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Posted at 2:45 PM ET, 02/15/2011

Intercounty Connector getting real

By Robert Thomson

icc gantry westbound.jpg
ICC's toll gantry looms ahead in the westbound lanes, as workers finish up. (Thomson).

In a week, the D.C. region's first major new highway in decades will be more than just a big construction project. The first segment of the Intercounty Connector is scheduled to open between Shady Grove in the west and Georgia Avenue in the east at 6 a.m. next Tuesday. Until now, most of your questions had to do with how the highway was to be built, so let's go over some details about the upcoming experience for drivers.

First, a question to you: In the comments section, let me know if you plan to use the first segment of the ICC on your commute and if so, why you think it may prove superior to your current route.

What is the Intercounty Connector?
This highway has been talked about for half a century. The final plan calls for creation of a 18.8 mile, six-lane, tolled highway across parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Construction is underway along 17.9 miles of the ICC route, but the rest has been delayed.

What exactly will open next week?
This is just the western side, 5.5 tolled miles. About a year from now, the highway will open as far east as I-95. Initially, the entrances and exits on the Shady Grove side will be at the Metro station on Shady Grove Road and at MD 355. On the eastern side in the Olney area, they will be at Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road (MD 28).

Why Norbeck Road?
The entrance and exit at Norbeck Road, just east of Georgia Avenue, is a temporary accommodation. Planners hope it will control the traffic flow at what is essentially an artificial eastern terminus for the new highway. Allowing traffic to exit and enter at Norbeck should take some of the pressure off the Georgia Avenue interchange. Once the rest of the highway opens, the Norbeck ramps will be closed.

What's the setup at Georgia Avenue?
The Georgia Avenue interchange will be partially opened next week. Southbound traffic on Georgia will be able to enter the highway heading west. Northbound traffic on Georgia will be able to turn left onto the westbound ICC.

From the eastbound ICC, traffic will find a ramp to southbound Georgia Avenue, then another ramp to northbound Georgia Avenue. Initially, these will be the only possible movements at the interchange.

What's the setup at Norbeck Road?
Westbound traffic on Norbeck will be able to make a right turn onto a ramp leading down to the Intercounty Connector. Eastbound traffic on Norbeck will be barred from making a left into the ICC entrance. Eastbound traffic on the connector will be able to turn either left or right at a new traffic signal on Norbeck Road.

How do I pay the toll?
There are no toll booths. Drivers will not be able to pay cash. The tolls will be collected electronically as vehicles pass under brown gantries on each side of the highway. (See photo above showing gantry in westbound lanes.) Devices on the gantries will communicate with the E-ZPass transponders on vehicles and assess the toll. For vehicles without E-ZPasses, cameras on the gantries will take photos of the license plates, and the vehicle owners will be sent a bill.

Should I get an E-ZPass?
If you think you're going to be a regular user of the ICC, even if not an every day user, you'll really want to have an E-ZPass. When the toll system is fully functional, vehicle owners who don't have E-ZPasses will be assessed a $3 service charge on top of the tolls.

Do the tolls start next week?
No, there's a special introductory offer. Maryland wants you to come on over and take a test drive for free. Drivers will start paying tolls on Monday, March 7. Until midnight on April 5, the $3 service charge will be waived for the drivers without E-ZPasses.

What do I do at the gantry?
Don't fear the gantry. Just keep driving. All three lanes are the same. The tolls are collected at highway speed, and the ICC speed limit is 55 mph.

What are the tolls?
Beginning Monday, March 7, passenger vehicles and light trucks will pay $1.45 during peak hours (6 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays), $1.15 off peak (5 to 6 a.m., 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 to 11 p.m. weekdays and 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekends) and 60 cents overnight (11 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily).

Is this like the HOT lanes in Virginia?
No. While the High Occupancy Toll lanes under construction on the western side of the Capital Beltway in Virginia also will collect tolls electronically at highway speed, the toll will vary depending on the current level of congestion. Also, carpoolers who meet the High Occupancy Vehicle requirement will travel for free. There is no carpool provision for ICC travelers.

By Robert Thomson  | February 15, 2011; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  Commuting, Construction, Driving, Maryland  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Intercounty Connector  
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Potentially silly question, but I figured it might be easier to just ask:
Does the 370-spur as it currently exists still remain toll free or do I need to consider other ways to access 270 regularly?

Posted by: jiben2 | February 15, 2011 3:25 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: jiben2, you'll be fine on I-370. The ICC doesn't reach out and grab any old sections of highway.

For other drivers, by the way, there will be plenty of signs alerting motorists that they are about to enter a TOLL road before they merge onto the ICC. I don't see much chance a driver would get confused about what type of road this is.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | February 15, 2011 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Working in Beltsville, MD I can at least test out the Traffic patterns till Georgia Ave. I am hoping it will save some traffic headaches. I look forward once the ICC is connects to the I-95. It was nice to see the transformation around the I-370.

Posted by: megaminku | February 15, 2011 4:19 PM | Report abuse

As long as MoCo is gauging me to pay to use a road, I wont use it... I will just plan my drive and go accordingly.. there are other alternative routes to get from point A to B

Posted by: rvanags | February 15, 2011 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Given where I live, I can't imagine I'll ever have reason to use this road except perhaps if I were going to or from Baltimore and there was a serious wreck on the Beltway, although even then I'd be more likely to use the I-97/MD-3/US-50 route to the east. I may drive up there one day next week just to check it out, though, given how much I've read about it over the years. I'll be interested in seeing whether the 55-mph speed limit is because the road is a bit twisty (which appears to be the case from the Google Maps satellite view) or because Maryland is being perverse. I just came back from Leesburg and I was thinking how it's absurd that Virginia's new 70-mph limit has not been implemented on the Dulles Greenway, although practically speaking it didn't matter since I set my cruise control at 70 anyway and the cop I passed didn't bat an eye.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 15, 2011 4:55 PM | Report abuse

I'm one of those lower MoCo residents with little use for the ICC but I fully expect to pay for it. Right now, I'm paying for the fact that the state tied up its money on the bonds. Also, other MD tolls are being boosted to subsidize the ICC. Later, I expect the tolls will keep usage low, meaning the state will either use additional funds to help pay off the bonds or the state will use general funds to lower the ICC tolls.

But it's all good because we know that roads pay for themselves!

I do wish the state would have the first weekend be a no-cars open house: just bikes, strollers, runners and skateboarders.

Posted by: KS100H | February 15, 2011 5:19 PM | Report abuse

I'm sure I will grind my teeth, pay the high toll, and use the ICC as a substitute for a jammed Beltway when necessary (I commute from Rockville to Baltimore and back), but I don't see any reason to use the initial segment. Why are we being charged a toll for a road to nowhere?
Once the route is complete to I-95, then it makes sense to travel from interstate to ICC to interstate.
But to go from interstate to/from Norbeck Road? Much of Norbeck to Route 29 is one twisting lane in each direction (speed limit 40, that is if the weather is clear and you're not behind someone going 30 or even less).

Posted by: hfmd | February 15, 2011 5:25 PM | Report abuse

I figure I spend as much time stopped at the traffic lights along Rt 28 as it will take to drive the entire (initial) 5.5 miles of the ICC. No brainer-well worth the minimal toll.

Posted by: david56 | February 15, 2011 10:42 PM | Report abuse

Why is the limit 55mph? Whatever happened to the design speed being 65, as I recall reading a while ago?

Posted by: thenoggin | February 16, 2011 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I think we are only likely to see more and more toll roads as a substitute for free roads. There is no such thing as free lunch, and current transportation tax revenues don't cover the cost of maintaining existing roads, let alone building new ones, let along expensive new ones like the ICC. When you set fuel taxes at a fixed price per gallon, the revenues decline due to inflation and better fuel efficiency of cars.

I think it is reasonable to place some of the funding burden on only those who will use the new road. Someone in Garrett County who buys gas for his pickup truck will likely not benefit much from the ICC. New roads haven't been constructed in that part of the state for years. So I can see why they would be opposed to entirely funding new infrastructure in the DC area with gas tax revenue that they have to contribute to. Not at all dissimilar to Virginia, where people in the southern part of the state want to make sure they have a good sized share of the transportation funding, and don't want it all to go to NOVA (where we could literally spend every transportation dollar in the state and still have congestion).

On the other hand, its hard to put the cost entirely on the users, otherwise tolls would be exorbitant, and literally, no one would use the road. So I think Maryland's system of partially funding it with public revenues, and partially funding it with tolls, is a decent compromise.

And to those who don't want to use it because of the tolls...well, that's great. More room for me. Have fun sitting at all the lights!

Posted by: thetan | February 16, 2011 10:57 AM | Report abuse

While I don't have reason to use the ICC regularly on commutes from Reston/Vienna area to Bethesda, I welcome the alternate route the ICC opens up to head towards Baltimore. The ICC will be a great work around to the always/often stop-and-go traffic on the beltway from 270 to 95, particularly on the inner loop (going east). I can't say how many times I've gotten stuck on 495 east on a weekend afternoon (particularly in summer/warmer months) headed towards Columbia/Baltimore to visit relatives. Pre-ICC, there was no viable alternative to 495, now there is and I welcome that.

And I'd have to agree with others: With limited interchanges and relatively good road layout/design (no "Mormon temple curves"), why can't the speed limit be 65 mph?

Posted by: xyv1027 | February 16, 2011 2:17 PM | Report abuse

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