Intercounty Connector traffic lighter than many expected

The $3 billion Intercounty Connector opened with much fanfare, but critics say the road id sparsely used thus far. (Photo: Dougtone/Flickr)

The Intercounty Connector, the new toll road that connects Gaithersburg to Laurel, was envisioned and created to alleviate the traffic headaches that have plagued local roads and the Capital Beltway for decades.

While some trips for commuters have been cut in half, though, some officials and commuters have been left to wonder why the $3 billion highway looks so empty.

Maryland Transit Administration officials say that the average ridership on the ICC - which is hovering around 21,000 cars per day - is exactly where they want to be. That's a stark distinction, though, from preliminary traffic and revenue studies, which pegged daily driver numbers as high as 71,000 cars per day.

"On the east end, we are slightly below projections, but in aggregate, we are above projections," MTA Executive Secretary Harold Bartlett said.

Changing projections?

Local transit specialists affirm the idea that average traffic volume on the new highway has been far lower than originally projected.

"The state has been grading itself on a curve for years on this project," transportation researcher Greg Smith says about the nearly 18-mile long road. "In multiple other projects done by the transportation authority, they were looking for and hoping for much higher numbers than I have now."

The MTA responds to that criticism by pointing out that the ICC was built in a highly-populated residential area and was never designed at interstate standards.

Drivers say that two other factors - the 55 mph speed limit and the toll itself - are negatively affecting perception of using the Intercounty Connector. The toll currently sits at 25 cents-per-mile during rush hour.

"When you live in the state and have to pay $4 just to get home, that's a lot of money," Maryland resident Theresa Hewlett said.

Tickets for everyone?

Meanwhile, many drivers are also noticing a heavy police presence on the highway. Since the first section of the ICC opened in early 2011, authorities have issued more than 3,700 tickets on it. Meanwhile, local lawmakers are pushing officials to consider raising that speed limit.

Hewlett says that even while driving over the speed limit, as high as 63 miles-per-hour, cars are flying past her, despite the high number of cars being pulled over.

"Every time I've been on it, I've seen police," she says, adding that she herself had never been pulled over on the ICC.

Bartlett argues that raising the speed limit won't do much in terms of actual commute time saved.

I can't drive 55

"Even if you traverse the entire 16 miles, going from 55 to 60 is going to save less than a minute off your travel time," Bartlett said.

AAA Mid-Atlantic says that the problem with the speed limit doesn't have as much to do with time saved as it has to do with perception. Currently, the ICC's speed limit matches the one on the Capital Beltway and on the Montgomery County portion of Interstate 270.

"In all probability, the state will increase the speed limit on the road and I think the road will become more attractive to motorists," AAA spokesman John Townsend says.

Meanwhile, studies done by the state reflect that the ICC may not ease congestion on neighboring roads; in fact, it may go up. State numbers show that surrounding roads like Georgia Avenue and Route 29 will still see an increase in traffic of about 4 percent over the next two decades.