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Plan for new Myrtle Beach freeway unveiled as statewide road debate continues

Area near where the proposed I-73 would cross in the Pee Dee region west of Myrtle Beach
Area near where the proposed I-73 would cross in the Pee Dee region west of Myrtle Beach

COLUMBIA, SC Plans to build a freeway to Myrtle Beach have resurfaced with a proposal that would let the state fill hundreds of acres of wetlands in the path of Interstate 73, a controversial highway at the center of South Carolina’s road-funding debate.

The freeway proposal is similar to one unveiled in 2011, but this time, it contains a new element that I-73 boosters hope will mollify environmental concerns about the more than $2 billion road.

In seeking a federal wetlands permit for I-73, the S.C. Department of Transportation proposes to protect an 11-mile corridor of streams and swamps near the Little Pee Dee River, a state designated scenic waterway that borders Horry County.

The plan surfaced at a state Transportation Commission meeting in December and was officially put on public notice late last week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The public has 30 days to respond, according to the notice posted Friday by the Corps. Agency spokeswoman Glenn Jeffries said the comment period could be extended to 60 days if the agency receives requests from the public. The amount of wetlands to be affected – more than 300 acres – is among the most extensive proposed in recent years in South Carolina.

It can take months for the Corps to decide whether to issue wetlands permits, longer if the project is a contentious one. The government requires permits to fill wetlands because they act as natural sponges, filtering and soaking up stormwater. Wetlands also provide habitat for an array of wildlife.

“This is a large, complex project,’ said Travis Hughes, the Corps’ regulatory chief in South Carolina. “We are using this time to evaluate the project.’’

Interstate 73 would extend from near Bennettsville at the North Carolina border to S.C. 22 west of Myrtle Beach. Much of the property along the 75-mile route contains wetlands, streams and rivers. A freeway to Myrtle Beach has been proposed since the 1980s by area leaders who say tourists need easier access to the Grand Strand.

The latest I-73 plan comes as state legislators continue to discuss the best way to repair South Carolina’s battered roads and bridges.

Dana Beach, director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said South Carolina needs to spend precious dollars repairing or upgrading the state’s roads and bridges – instead of committing money for new freeways that aren’t needed. The Myrtle Beach freeway isn’t a priority, no matter what the DOT offers as compensation for the road’s environmental impacts, he said.

“This goes to the whole point of what is being debated in Columbia, which is ‘How are we going to repair .... a road system that already exists?’ ’’ Beach said.

Beach said taxpayers already have committed millions of dollars on preliminary studies and other work for projects such as the I-526 extension near Charleston, as well as I-73.

The DOT said Tuesday it has spent about $70 million and committed more than $20 million for early work on I-73.

“It’s just a fact that the longer you wait to repair a road, the more expensive it gets,’’ Beach said. “This continued drum beat of building I-526, I-73, whatever, costs the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars because of the deferred maintenance.’’

In exchange for disturbing about 325 acres of wetlands and crossing 17 streams for the road, the DOT plan would save more than 4,500 acres of wetlands in an area filled with wildlife and rare, old-growth trees. The property, known as Gunter’s Island, contains a total of 6,134 acres. It would become a state wildlife preserve.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources likes the new plan to protect property along the Little Pee Dee River, the agency’s Bob Perry said.

“There is a lot of excitement about this,’’ said Perry, who tracks environmental permitting issues.

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