Boondoggle or wise investment? Permit for multi-billion dollar Myrtle Beach road renews fight

As Grand Strand leaders celebrate a federal decision to approve environmental permits for a new Myrtle Beach freeway, critics of the project have revived a question they’ve been asking for years:

Why build a multibillion-dollar interstate to the beach when an existing highway can move traffic just as well?

The S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Environmental Law Center favor improving the S.C. 38-U.S. 501 corridor west of Myrtle Beach over building Interstate 73 through virgin forests and farmland.

I-73 would cost anywhere from $1 billion to nearly $4 billion, but upgrades to the S.C. 38-U.S. 501 corridor could be done for $147 million-$428 million, they say, citing a 2011 study the Conservation League commissioned.

“This would have one of the largest ecological impacts in the state’s history from a transportation project,’’ law center attorney Chris DeScherer said of I-73. “To me, the big mystery is why not upgrade what we have and accomplish the same objective? It would be cheaper and on a more realistic timeline.’’

Critics say the public shouldn’t pay for a new freeway when basic road improvements are needed across the state, including the Columbia area.

“This is one of those times where creative thinking and open minds could deliver a project that makes more sense for everyone,’’ DeScherer said.

Criticism of I-73 kicked up again this week when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a permit to disturb more than 300 acres of wetlands that lie in the proposed 75-mile-long road’s path. Most of the wetlands would be filled. The Corps’ decision is a major milestone and will make it easier for the project to be built — if funding can be secured. Road boosters in Myrtle Beach say they will push to find money, including using local tourism taxes or tolls.

Horry County leaders have for the better part of 30 years advocated construction of a new interstate spur from I-95 to the coast. As proposed, I-73 would run from the N.C. border in the Bennettsville area to I-95, then from I-95 to just west of Myrtle Beach, where it would connect with an existing highway. Area tourism leaders are particularly interested in getting the latter segment built, even if the entire stretch is not completed.

They say Myrtle Beach is one of the few resorts in the U.S. not served by an interstate. A new interstate would help tourists get in and out of the traffic-clogged resort, while providing another corridor in which to evacuate people during hurricanes, road boosters say.

“The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce is thrilled that the federal government has finally issued a permit for the construction of Interstate 73,” Chamber President Brad Dean said in an emailed statement to The Sun News of Myrtle Beach this week. “Now that the federal government has issued the permit, we can begin to gather the funds to complete this important project.’’

Backers of the new freeway say upgrading existing highways won’t provide the same benefits as a new highway, which could boost economic growth. Studies suggest that I-73 will generate approximately 22,000 permanent and 7,700 temporary jobs, said U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, a freeway supporter and Republican from the Grand Strand.

Alan Hancock, a spokesman for the Conservation League, agreed the road could encourage development in the already bustling Myrtle Beach area — but he said that’s not necessarily a good thing. More development would come at the expense of wildlife-rich wetlands and open farmland, he said.

“If you are building a new road into forest and farmland, you are going to turn that forest and farmland into subdivisions and strip malls,’’ Hancock said.

While finding money for the project is a major hurdle that Grand Strand and state leaders must clear, the costs could go up if lawsuits are filed.

The Conservation League and the law center are considering filing legal appeals to stop the project. They are examining whether the Corps can legally approve the wetlands fill because it has been years since the agency studied the environmental impacts. The Corps quietly approved the wetlands filling this week. An agency spokesman said Wednesday that while the project will affect the landscape, it has public benefits.

DeScherer noted that South Carolina’s passion to build I-73 runs counter to what’s occurring in other states, which have not built new stretches of the interstate. The freeway, as envisioned, would have run from Michigan to the South Carolina coast.

At one point in 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended denying the wetlands permit because of its impacts on important natural areas in eastern South Carolina. But the original plan has changed and the EPA’s opposition has cooled. In return for filling or disturbing more than 300 acres of wetlands, the plan is to save an 11-mile-long corridor along the Little Pee Dee River between Myrtle Beach and Marion.