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Fri October 28, 2011 - Southeast Edition
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The board that oversees South Carolina’s Department of Transportation on Sept. 15 approved launching an $11.5 million project in Dillon County that critics contend represents the start of building the long-planned Interstate 73.
The vote by DOT commissioners to accept the winning bid means construction on the intersection of U.S. 301 and U.S. 501 near Latta should start within a few months and end in summer 2013.
Federal money is funding all but a fraction of the cost, with state gas tax revenue covering $292,000 over the next two years.
Commissioner Sarah Nuckles of Rock Hill argued it represents ground being broken for I-73, and that the cash-strapped agency lacks the money and permits to proceed with the interstate link to Myrtle Beach.
“It just seems like we’re getting ahead of ourselves,” said Nuckles, whose district includes Dillon County. “It’s amazing to me that we’re moving dirt on a project that’s not funded.”
She repeatedly suggested it would be better to use the money on other federally funded road projects around the state, given the agency’s money woes.
But DOT Deputy Secretary John Walsh said that’s not possible. A $10 million federal stimulus grant and $1.2 million congressional earmark is designated specifically for the work in Dillon County, he said.
He countered that the project — which includes highway widening and realignment, as well as bridge work — stands alone as an improvement even if I-73 is never built.
Nuckles and environmentalists argue work can’t start on any segment of I-73 without the funding in place and necessary environmental permits, saying the proposed interstate impacts many miles of streams and wetlands. But the U.S. Department of Transportation’s division administrator, Bob Lee, confirmed that the intersection improvement is considered a separate project that has received all necessary federal approvals.
Myrtle Beach is more than 60 mi. southeast of the roadwork.
Talked about for two decades, I-73 would eventually stretch from the heart of the state’s $18 billion tourism industry across six states, from Myrtle Beach to Michigan. Its 90-mi. trek through four South Carolina counties is expected to cost more than $2 billion.
Congress has designated about $100 million over the years for South Carolina’s portion, Walsh said.
Nuckles objects to the new interstate, saying a better, cheaper alternative would be to make improvements to existing highways leading to Myrtle Beach.
“This is very significant,” she said about the vote. “This is the first dirt moved for I-73.”
The commission also voted to proceed with the $24 million widening of U.S. 278 to Bluffton, set for completion by December 2013. Again, Nuckles suggested the agency re-distribute the money on roadwork around the state.
But Walsh said that’s another example of congressional earmarks designated to a specific project, along with a $6 million match from local governments. The state is contributing less than $710,000 of the cost from gas taxes, he said.
“One of the things we need to encourage is local participation. We have that,” said commissioner Craig Forrest of Bluffton.
The commission voted in August, over Nuckles’ objections, to proceed with plans to borrow $344 million for five road projects, including $105 million on the first piece of I-73, a 6-mi. section linking Interstate 95 to U.S. 501.
State officials still must approve the bonds. The DOT has about 75 percent of the necessary right-of-way approvals lined up, and should have the rest by year’s end, Walsh said.
In August, the agency announced it is delaying $24 million in resurfacing and other small projects funded by state gas taxes as it tries to build up reserves and resolve its cash-flow issues. Earlier this summer, the agency ran into trouble paying contractors within its allowed window of 30 working days. Some unpaid bills were older than 60 working days. A $52 million advance from the Federal Highway Administration allowed the agency to catch up in August.
As of Sept. 15, the agency had $22 million cash on hand and had no invoices older than 30 working days, the agency said in its weekly update.
The 30-day clock doesn’t start until agency employees validate the work is done correctly. Between January and July, that validation on construction work took an average of more than 11 calendar days, and now takes seven, Walsh said.