The Intercounty Connector was a bad idea in the first place, but recent events have deepened the scale of Maryland’s mistake in approving this project. The costs continue to spiral, like the new $100 million cost overrun we found out about last month. And rising gas prices have made any hope of recouping costs through tolls increasingly a pipe dream.
Amid calls to cancel this disastrous project, Maryland state highway administrator Neil Pedersen published an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun defending the idea of continuing the project. Pedersen perpetrates many myths and misunderstandings of traffic engineering that responsible planners jettisoned years ago. His arguments play on the public’s misunderstanding of traffic, in a manner we’d expect more of a politician than an engineer.
Pedersen first extols the time-saving benefits of the ICC to Baltimore-Gaithersburg commuters, saying it will cut commute times 25 to 50 percent and save a commuter on that route 10 days per year. It’s true that building a highway makes it faster to drive. However, that’s only true if we ignore induced demand, as Pedersen carefully does.
Once the highway is in place, development pressures will increase dramatically in the remaining rural communities near the route, and many more people will choose to live in Gaithersburg while working in Baltimore, adding to sprawl. Meanwhile, they won’t live in communities along I-95 that would appreciate new residents and economic growth. In the long run, all these new commuters will choke the ICC, and surrounding roads, with traffic. Or, (since the ICC plans to charge tolls), the tolls will have to rise and rise just to keep traffic at a constant level.
Pedersen has the audacity to call building the ICC “providing transportation choices.” Of course, by building the ICC, Maryland is foregoing many other possible transportation choices, like better MARC service, a good rail line to Frederick, bus service, local pedestrian and road improvements, bike trails, and possibly any realistic chance of building the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway. The ICC has virtually eliminated Maryland’s choices for a generation.
He also repeats the old, long-debunked canard that by eliminating stop-and-go traffic, we’ll cut emissions. Again, that’s only true if nobody drives any more as a result of a new road. And that’s never the case. The pollution from people driving longer distances thanks to their new convenient, high-speed freeway will surely outweigh any savings from lower idling. Likewise, while Pedersen claims the ICC will increase safety, by adding traffic around the ends of the ICC and encouraging more car commuting, it’ll give back most if not all of those gains in worse traffic and greater danger from drivers during the non-ICC portion of their commute.
Pedersen claims that it’s too late to cancel the project, and that the project doesn’t take away from the road fund. The latter statement is only true because much of the money is coming from Maryland’s general fund, bankrupting the state to keep this pet project alive. As for it being too late, there’s a good expression for this: “Don’t throw good money after bad.” Psychologists and economists talk about the “sunk cost fallacy,” where after spending a lot of money on a losing proposition, people are reluctant to lose that investment and end up losing even more. (See: Iraq war.) The ICC is a bad idea for Maryland even with part of the road already built.
Governor O’Malley should put an end to this folly immediately, before Maryland deepens its existing mistake any further. Otherwise, Maryland will be mired in smog, traffic, sprawl and debt for a long time, and future generations of Marylanders will be able to thank O’Malley and Pedersen for their predicament.