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Army Corps Reviews Proposed Interstate

Officials are hopeful I-73 “finally moves from a dotted line on a map" to reality.

Mon August 29, 2016 - Southeast Edition #18

In 1991, Congress called a Michigan-to-Myrtle Beach route, via Interstates 73 and 74, a high priority.
In 1991, Congress called a Michigan-to-Myrtle Beach route, via Interstates 73 and 74, a high priority.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) A decades-long proposal to build an interstate to Myrtle Beach is back before the Army Corps of Engineers, which is weighing whether to permit construction of the four-lane, nonstop path to the heart of the state's tourism industry.

Advocates contend Interstate 73 is needed to keep people coming and grow the Grand Strand's economy, while opponents argue the $2.4 billion project is too costly, unnecessary and environmentally destructive.

Both sides are invited to send their comments to the Corps and state Department of Health and Environmental Control through Aug. 8. As of July 26, the Corps had already received more than 400 statements, said project manager Steve Brumagin.

There is no timeline on either agency's decision. Even if both say yes, construction depends on funding.

But Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, is hopeful I-73 “finally moves from a dotted line on a map' to reality. The latest review comes 34 years after Congress required studying a new highway to Myrtle Beach.

In 1991, Congress called a Michigan-to-Myrtle Beach route, via Interstates 73 and 74, a high priority.

But just $116 million — including $87 million in federal earmarks — has been designated for South Carolina's portion, which stretches about 80 mi. through rural Marion, Dillon and Marlboro counties to the North Carolina border.

While the application encompasses the entire project, proponents say their focus is on building the 42-mi. southern section linking Interstate 95 to the Conway Bypass, providing that long-sought interstate access.

Gov. Nikki Haley has called I-73 key to bringing new businesses to the Grand Strand but has repeatedly said the federal government should fund it. Other advocates say they realize that's not going to happen.

DOT Commission Chairman Mike Wooten, of Myrtle Beach, insists the $1.3 billion project could be built without state taxes, primarily through tolls and local taxes if needed.

“No other community in the nation has 18 million visitors without interstate access,' said Dean, who's also president of the National I-73/I-74/I-75 Corridor Association. “There's no other place more likely to succeed in building an interstate without state and federal funds.'

But Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League, calls that plan unnecessarily risky in a state where legislators can't agree on how to fund tens of billions of dollars' worth of existing highway needs.

“If the toll doesn't cover the cost, who's going to cover it?' he asked. “We don't have the money to do it. It would take a decade, and there are options that will move us along much faster for much less money.'

The League proposes to instead upgrade the existing four-lane corridor of S.C. 38 and U.S. 501, estimated to cost $150 million and have far less environmental impact.

I-73 proponents dismiss the alternative.

“501 is already a parking lot in the middle of summer. All that would accomplish is to move the traffic jam further down the road,' Dean said.

According to the Corps' and DHEC's joint public notice, the construction of I-73 would fill 324 acres of water, impacting 17 streams, 139 wetlands and five ponds. It's unclear how much of that is in the southern portion.

To offset the impact, the state proposes buying Gunter's Island, a 6,134-acre tract in Horry County bordered by the Little Pee Dee River, to become part of the Department of Natural Resources' Heritage Trust program. Federal earmarks would cover 80 percent of the roughly $18 million mitigation plan, according to the DOT.

Existing Toll Roads

Beach points to Interstate 185, a toll road in Greenville County, as an example of overestimated projections.

A year after its 2001 opening, traffic counts were 60 percent less than expected, forcing the operating nonprofit to declare bankruptcy in 2010 and restructure the debt. Peter Femia, Southern Connector's general manager, said revenues are tracking revised estimates, helped by an improved economy and toll increases, most recently in January. The 16-mi. route is slated to be paid for in 2051.

By comparison, traffic exceeded projections on South Carolina's only other toll road, the 7.5-mi. Cross Island Parkway on Hilton Head Island. Opened in 1997 with triple the expected traffic, it's on track to be paid off in 2021, according to the Department of Transportation.

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