The Buzz

The Buzz: A secret Myrtle Beach interstate meeting?

S.C. Department of Transportation Commissioner Mike Wooten sent an email on Aug. 14 to Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce head Brad Dean requesting a private presentation Aug. 25 on the results of an Interstate 73 study.

The study analyzed how much money a toll on vehicles using the interstate, which would lead to Myrtle Beach, would raise over a 26-year period to help pay for the proposed road.

In the email, Wooten wrote he “really would like this to remain confidential until the final report is published.”

“I can’t stress the importance of keeping this close to the vest until the time is right to unveil it,” Wooten wrote. “As you know, timing is everything, and we don’t need to give the intervening groups time to produce the drivel they will put out questioning the results.”

Wooten confirmed to The Buzz the meeting was held. He said it took place at the Myrtle Beach chamber because of convenience. The chamber also helped facilitate the study, he said.

Wooten said he requested the meeting be private because people read into reports what they want and the study was incomplete.

The minute the report is complete, it will be published, he said, adding it is a public document because it is being paid for by money for Interstate 73.

Last week, the state Transportation Department made a copy of the more than 250-page report available to The Buzz.

The study shows a toll would generate an estimated $5.2 million for the interstate in 2025, its first year, and produce $32.7 million a year by 2050. (Those figures are in 2015 dollars.)

South Carolina’s portion of the Interstate 73 project is expected to cost about $2.4 billion.

The toll would be a tool in the toolbox to pay for the interstate, Wooten said, adding the study was conducted to find out how big that tool could be.

However, the study found a toll would not raise enough money to pay the state’s portion of the interstate’s costs. But the toll money could help offset some of those costs, Wooten said.

Asked about the “intervening groups” that he was hoping to exclude from the meeting, Wooten said there are many on the coast that go by a lot of different names. He declined to name any.

But one of those groups could be the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.

“I am 100 percent sure we were,” said Dana Beach, who heads the organization, which opposes Interstate 73.

“This is just another example of an effort to keep the decisions in the back room and not have an open and objective debate about the project,” Beach said of the closed-door meeting.

Instead of building a new interstate, Beach’s group favors upgrading U.S. 501, saying that would cost only a fraction of the expense of building a new interstate and would do less damage to farms, forests and wetlands.

Christy Hall, acting secretary of the state Transportation Department, said she did not attend the closed-door meeting. However, she said she was aware that some of her agency’s employees went to the Myrtle Beach area to review the toll study, which had been launched many months earlier.

“I don’t know that I knew per se that it was confidential,” Hall said of the meeting. “We certainly don’t endorse private meetings or anything like that.”

Former state Rep. Nelson Hardwick, who resigned from the S.C. House in May after he was the subject of an investigation by the House speaker’s office, also attended the meeting, Wooten said.

Hardwick was at the meeting because he has been involved with Grand Strand transportation issues, Wooten said.

2016 in S.C.

Carly Fiorina: Attending a national security forum at The Citadel in Charleston, noon Tuesday; attending a Conservative Leadership Project forum at the Crown Reef Convention Center in Myrtle Beach, 5:30 p.m. Tuesday; stopping at Hudson’s BBQ in Lexington, 12:15 p.m. Wednesday; filing for the S.C. Republican presidential primary, S.C. GOP headquarters in Columbia, 1:45 p.m. Wednesday; attending a town-hall meeting at the Magnolia Room in Rock Hill, 6:30 Wednesday; speaking at a town-hall meeting at Converse College in Spartanburg, 9 a.m. Thursday; visiting the Carolina Pregnancy Center in Spartanburg, 10:30 a.m. Thursday; speaking at Greenville Republican Women Club at the Poinsett Club in Greenville, noon Thursday.

Mike Huckabee: Meeting with veterans at the Marina Inn at Myrtle Beach’s Grand Dunes, 11:30 a.m. Tuesday; filing to run in the S.C. primary at the S.C. GOP headquarters in Columbia, 2:30 p.m. Tuesday; touring the Sea Pro Boat factory in Whitmire, 4:30 p.m. Tuesday; speaking at a S.C. GOP town-hall meeting at the Newberry Opera House, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday; meeting with the Lexington Dawnbusters at the Lexington Lizard’s Thicket, 7:30 a.m. Wednesday

John Kasich: Speaking at a Greater Charleston Business Alliance/S.C. African American Chamber of Commerce meeting in North Charleston, 10:30 a.m. Thursday

Rand Paul: Speaking at the University of South Carolina’s Russell House, 2 p.m. Wednesday

Donald Trump: Speaking at a Greater Charleston Business Alliance/S.C. African American Chamber of Commerce meeting in North Charleston, 2 p.m. Wednesday; attending U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s town-hall meeting at the Koger Center in Columbia, at 6 p.m. Wednesday

Scott Walker: Attending Aiken GOP event at Bobby’s BBQ in Warrenville, 4:15 p.m. Saturday