By ERIN BRYANT, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Several Maryland environmental groups said Tuesday they will go to court in an effort to block Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's plans for the Intercounty Connector because of what they said was a lack of consideration of traffic alternatives during the evaluation of the ICC's environmental impact.
The Audubon Naturalist Society, along with Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club and the Coalition for Smarter Growth, are planning to file a lawsuit in the next two to five weeks against the State and Federal Highway Administrations - the agencies that oversaw the Environmental Impact Study that provided the go-ahead for the construction of the $3 billion ICC, one of the longest-planned and most-bitterly fought highway projects in the state's history.
"No reasonable alternatives were looked at other than 'road' or 'not the road'" said Mike Harold, the ICC Campaign Coordinator for the Audubon Naturalist Society. "That's absolutely preposterous."
The ICC proposal, which has been on state books for over five decades, was put on track for speedy environmental review in 2003 by Ehrlich, who secured approval directly from President George W. Bush for the quick review.
The planned six-lane toll highway was then approved by the Federal Highway Administration in May of this year. It would cut across 18 miles of Montgomery and Prince George's counties and connect the Interstate 270 with Interstate 95.
Ehrlich has commissioned three major studies of the ICC's impact on traffic flow and the highway's potential environmental consequences since he took office. Aides to the governor did not return calls seeking comment on the proposed suit.
"As we reviewed the Environmental Impact Study, we found the Ehrlich administration has violated the law," said Neal Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the Audubon Naturalist Society, in a press release issued about the lawsuit on Tuesday.
"With the interest of Maryland residents in mind, we are taking this challenge to the courts," Fitzpatrick said.
"Since Gov. Ehrlich launched this third study of the ICC in 2003, we have been concerned that the Ehrlich administration would violate both the spirit and the letter of the laws designed to ensure a fair consideration of alternative and a complete analysis of impacts that results in the most effective and least damaging project," Fitzpatrick said.
During his campaign for reelection, Ehrlich often mentioned the ICC as his transportation solution for Maryland congestion. Ehrlich presided over a formal ground-breaking for the ICC in October, at the height of what proved to be his unsuccessful re-election campaign.
Critics of the toll highway say that Ehrlich was determined to build the ICC from the start and that the Environmental Impact Study was insufficient and designed to favor the highway's construction.
"The governor just wanted to build a new highway," said Laura Olsen, Assistant Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, citing the influence of Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan who she referred to as Bob 'The Builder' Flanagan.
The lawsuit will contend that "the governor failed to do a fair consideration of alternatives or a fair assessment of environmental and community impacts," Olsen said.
Environmental Defense and the Sierra Club announced last week that the groups would file a lawsuit challenging the results of the air quality analysis done during the ICC impact study, as well. Both groups maintain that the construction of the highway violates the federal Clean Air Act and would contribute to further air pollution.