By Katherine Shaver, November 30, 2013
A section of the Intercounty Connector in Olney. The 18.8-mile highway links Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Recent state projections of toll revenues from the Intercounty Connector were generally lower – and more accurate – than those made when Maryland lawmakers approved the road’s $2.5-billion construction.
Maryland officials have said repeatedly that traffic on the Intercounty Connector matches state projections, even as motorists say the controversial toll road continues to feel remarkably underused two years after it opened.
Tolls collected on the highway, between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, do align with state forecasts, but only because those projections were adjusted downward, according to internal state reports obtained under a public records request.
“They lowered the bar so now they can step over it,” said Montgomery County Council me
mber Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), a longtime ICC critic. “When you merge onto the ICC, it doesn’t feel like a highway. It feels like an airport runway.”
How many vehicles are using the ICC matters to motorists across Maryland. The $2.5 billion highway, which was hotly debated for decades because of its cost and environmental and community impacts, was the most expensive ever built in the state.
Maryland lawmakers agreed to pay for it by greatly increasing the authority’s debt, including $1 billion worth of bonds and a federal loan backed by all state toll revenue. The state committed to raise tolls statewide, if necessary, to pay them off.
The highway’s massive construction debt also prevents the state from lowering ICC toll rates — $8 for a passenger car making an end-to-end round trip during rush hours — to attract more motorists. Doing so, a recent study found, would lower the 18.8-mile highway’s revenue, requiring motorists statewide to subsidize even more of its costs.
Transportation Authority officials say the ICC is a success. They point to a recent study done by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that found that ICC motorists cut their travel time in half and that traffic on nearby roads had dropped by 5 percent to 10 percent. ICC traffic is growing by an average of 2.6 percent a month, officials said.
Earlier toll revenue estimates were “ballpark” projections made before ICC toll rates were set, state officials said. The projections also didn’t always reflect the need for a three-year “ramp-up” period for motorists to absorb the new road into their travel habits, officials said.
The state’s consultant, Wilbur Smith Associates, lowered ICC revenue projections significantly for the last time in 2010 — by $7 million annually — to reflect the effects of a global recession and rising gas prices, according to the reports.
Even so, state officials said, the ICC’s true financial impact won’t be known for five to 10 years, after traffic has stabilized. The last segment, between Interstate 95 and Route 1, is scheduled to open next year.
“The fact is, you always have [roads] built for a 30-year time frame,” said Bruce Gartner, the authority’s executive secretary. “You don’t build them for day one.”