The S.C. Department of Transportation Commission revived efforts Thursday to build Interstate 73, a controversial freeway long sought as a way to bring tourists to the Grand Strand.
The commission approved a new plan that members hope will appease environmental concerns about the project. The plan calls for preserving Gunter’s Island in Horry County in exchange for wetlands that would be destroyed during construction of the interstate.
“This puts the road directly on the path to construction,” said Transportation Department commissioner Mike Wooten, who represents Horry and surrounding counties.
Huge hurdles, however, remain before construction can begin.
First, a federal wetlands permit must be approved. Even if the state gets that green light, paying for the project has yet to be resolved.
The portion of I-73 in South Carolina is expected to cost about $2.4 billion, including about $1 billion for the section from I-95 to near Myrtle Beach. About $46.5 million in federal and state money, from the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank, now is set aside to pay for I-73, Wooten said.
Moving forward with the interstate — talked about for years — also could anger those who oppose construction of new roads in the state, saying money should go instead to repair and improve existing roads. Lawmakers are expected to decide this year whether to increase the state’s gas tax to pay for road repairs.
Early plans for the road showed that I-73 would impact more wetlands than most other projects in South Carolina.
The project would fill 272 acres of wetlands and nearly a mile of streams on the interstate’s path from the North Carolina border, near Bennettsville, to S.C. 22, near Conway, according to a Jan. 26, 2011, request for a federal wetlands permit. All told, more than 340 acres of wetlands would be affected.
The wetlands package approved Thursday by the Transportation Department would be part of a federal application to construct the road.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could require extensive environmental studies before deciding on whether to approve filling wetlands. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control also would have to issue a water-quality permit.
Is ‘this project ... necessary’
For much of the past 30 years, Myrtle Beach area leaders have sought an interstate to the Grand Strand as a way to bring more tourists to the coast, while also offering an evacuation route in the event of a hurricane. But conservationists have questioned the need.
It’s unclear whether conservation groups, which have opposed I-73, will support the road now that the Transportation Department has offered a new plan to offset the freeway’s impact to the environment.
In the past, conservationists have favored upgrading U.S. 501/S.C. 38, instead of building a multi-billion-dollar interstate. Those reached Thursday by The State were leery of the wetlands plan approved by the Transportation Commission.
The route for I-73 would cut through a state nature preserve and some of the most significant hardwood swamps in eastern South Carolina’s Pee Dee region, environmentalists have said.
“The first question that has to be answered is whether this project is necessary,’’ said Dana Beach, director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “We have said that it is not.’’
Beach said the Gunter’s Island property being offered by the Transportation Department is appealing to protect. But, he added, “A great piece of property doesn’t make a project necessary that wasn’t necessary in the first place.’’
However, Beach said he would be willing to discuss the plan with the Transportation Department and the state Department of Natural Resources.
Debra Buffkin, executive secretary with the Wildlife Action conservation group, said her organization never opposed the freeway, just the route proposed by the Transportation Department in the past. Wildlife Action focuses on environmental issues in the Little Pee Dee River area.
However, the support of the state Department of Natural Resources could help move the project along. Natural Resources has been willing to sign off on major projects, including a gold mine in Lancaster County, in exchange for protecting land the agency long has coveted for protection. This so-called “landscape’’ mitigation has helped move some major projects in South Carolina more quickly – most recently a Volvo plant in Berkeley County.
Gunter’s Island is an area of swamps, forests and streams along the Little Pee Dee River in Horry County. The nearly 7,000-acre tract is home to wild turkeys, black bears, white-tailed deer and ducks.
Transportation officials hope the Gunter’s Island proposal is appealing to road critics worried about the environmental impacts. The original plan to offset the road’s impact on wetlands included several tracts west of Myrtle Beach that critics did not consider significant enough to justify the road.
Who would pay?
The Transportation Department’s decision Thursday follows years of discussions and battles over whether to build I-73.
In 2011, the Transportation Commission proposed including some money from the road in a $344 million bond package for roads, prompting a torrent of criticism from environmentalists.
How the interstate would be paid for remains unknown.
Wooten said state Transportation Department dollars are off the table, adding he made that commitment to the legislators who elected him to the commission.
The Transportation Department doesn’t have enough money to keep up with the roads it has, he said. “We don’t need to be spending (Transportation Department) money on new projects.”
A study found a toll on the interstate would generate an estimated $5.2 million for the road in 2025, its first year, and produce $32.7 million a year by 2050. (Those figures are in 2015 dollars.)
In addition to tolling, Horry County possibly could spend some of the money from its penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for transportation, Wooten said. Also, money for I-73 could be in a new federal highway bill, he said.
Still, some lawmakers could be wary of the commission taking a step toward building a new road.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, blocked a gas tax increase in the Senate earlier this year, arguing state money should pay for maintenance of existing highways, not new construction.
“A good rule of thumb, moving forward right now with the money that we are currently putting toward transportation, is to make a priority maintaining and repairing what we already have,” Davis said Thursday.
The road-repair debate will be the first thing that state senators take up when they return to Columbia in January, he said.
Wooten said increasing the gas tax for road repairs and paying for Interstate 73 are two different issues. Interstate 73 will not use any of the money the Legislature could approve next year, he said.