Traffic Light Along New Maryland Toll Road

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Photo: Martin Di Caro

(Washington, DC -- Martin Di Caro, WAMU) Traffic appears pretty light on the Intercounty Connector, especially now that electronic tolls are being collected, but the Maryland Transportation Authority says traffic volumes are on target.

The completion of the eastern segment of the Intercounty Connector in late November promised to transform commuting by opening an 18-mile toll road cutting east-west across Montgomery County, Md.

Approximately 20,000 vehicles travel the ICC on average on weekdays, with the western segment seeing more volume than the eastern one by about 10,000 vehicles per day.  It takes three years for volume to ramp up on a new toll road, according to an ICC spokeswoman.

Raw data show that traffic volume significantly dropped after the collection of tolls began in early December.  On December 4, a Sunday, more than 44,000 vehicles drove the western segment of the ICC.  The next day saw volume fall to fewer than 26,000 vehicles.

In the Tanglewood subdivision of Silver Spring the sounds of birds and crickets on pretty suburban streets is now mixing with the constant, distant hum of traffic.  But the sound is less distant for Ken Schmidt, who purchased his home on Trebleclef Lane two years ago.  A new sound barrier standing about 20 feet high runs right behind his backyard.

“There is the old saying ‘not in my backyard.’ But here it is,” Schmidt says.  “When we purchased the house, the state website for the ICC spoke of two plans that ran north and south of Rt. 198.  This plan was not on the main page.  I assumed it wasn’t an option.”

Schmidt says he might have done more thorough research, because he would not have bought his home had he known where the ICC would be built.  Instead he recently spent $13,000 for new windows to block the sound of traffic from filling his home where he lives with his wife and baby boy.

“It’s 100 times better than it used to be but unless we went with even more expensive windows with more layers of glass, even that wouldn’t have solved the problem completely,” says Schmidt, who says dust kicked up by passing traffic and carried by the wind often covers his home, another reason to keep the windows closed.

Two doors down Trebleclef Lane lives Jeff Owrutsky, who bought his home in the early 1990s.  Over the past 20 years he witnessed the long-running public process that ended with the construction of a highway he actively opposed.

“This has been on the books since the ‘50s so we got wind of it before we moved here.  Certainly everybody said they would never build it but I guess you can say they have now,” Owrutsky says.  “A lot of the problem with this road is that it cost so much money.  It’s busting the bank in terms of our whole transportation budget.”

Owrutsky says he is getting used to his new environs but misses what his backyard used to be like.  “It was dense, full of trees, and there’s also an auto park over there.  It used to be that the trees would shield us from all the lights of the auto park.”

The ICC was designed to reduce traffic congestion on heavily congested east-west roads in Montgomery County, but the Maryland Transportation Authority says traffic analyses will take months to complete and there are no studies available.

In interviews with, residents near one of those roads, Briggs Chaney Road., say it’s difficult to tell whether traffic has dwindled over the past four months.

“I don’t see a major difference since the ICC road has been open.  When I go to Rockville, I take Rt. 28 and I think it is more congested,” says Alfiya Akhmed, who has lived on Briggs Chaney for seven years.

Some have noticed a positive change.  “Before we were kind of congested but now there is less traffic on Briggs Chaney,” says Gladstone Botsoe, a commuter who uses the road three times per week.  But commuter Rob McKellar says the traffic seems about the same, and he blamed the tolls on the ICC for keeping people on the local roads.

“With the economy the way it is I don’t think people want to pay.  I wouldn’t pay to go on that road,” McKellar says.

About six miles southwest of where Briggs Chaney Road runs parallel to the ICC, a stream runs through Northwest Branch Park, where many trees have fallen or are tilting down, their roots exposed above the stream bank.  Environmentalists say the ICC will exacerbate the problem of storm water run off that has already caused so much damage to the ecosystem.

“It’s hard to say whether any particular thing has caused the increased damage, but you have to figure that all those acres of concrete with run off is going to have an effect that is different than acres of forest where the water seeps in slowly,” says Anne Ambler, the president of Neighbors of Northwest Branch.  She and Dave O’Leary, the chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, described to the cycle that may transform the forest permanently for the worse.

“When we have lots of pavement… the storm pours in really quickly and the streams will come up quickly and gouge out the sides of the streams.  This water level will bounce right up and could be two or three times as deep as it is now.  Where we have these sharp bends in the stream that water pounds against the sides, undercuts the banks, and trees will fall in,” O’Leary says.

As more trees tumble into the stream, roots and all, the stream grows wider, causing further erosion.  As more trees fall, more sunlight breaks through the canopy, causing the growth of invasive species which now blanket the forest bottom.  The invasive plants prevent the seeds of older trees from taking root, and the forest will fail to sustain itself.

“Over the next couple of decades we will see this whole area transform.  A forest will become a few trees, different vegetation on the ground, the water is polluted.  What was appealing in 1990 or 1995 is much less so in 2015,” O’Leary says.

The state has five ongoing storm water management projects just for the area of the Northwest Branch, but Ambler says the problem is to a considerable degree irreversible.

“Progress is not a question of putting down more concrete.  The situation where we find ourselves now with climate change, progress would mean concentrating preserving our fresh water which is scarce and investing in other forms of energy,” she says.

Listen to an extended audio report on this issue here.