The state's road commission chief snapped back Thursday at opponents of a new freeway to Myrtle Beach, saying they don't represent the views of most people.
Danny Isaac, chairman of the Department of Transportation Commission, said Interstate 73 will bring tourists to the Grand Strand and help the rural economy of eastern South Carolina.
"The people of Marion County are starving," Isaac said, referring to the small county that abuts the Myrtle Beach area.
Upgrading existing highways, a plan pushed by conservationists as an alternative to I-73, won't accomplish the same thing as a new freeway, Isaac said. An interstate moves traffic faster and safer, said Isaac, a Myrtle Beach businessman.
"There is a small group that brings that up, but the majority is clear," Isaac said during a break in a DOT commission meeting in Columbia. "The facts will clarify the difference between an interstate and a road that has access with cars pulling in and out."
I-73 is of statewide interest because the 80-mile freeway will cost federal and state taxpayers $2.4 billion if built from north of McColl at the North Carolina line to S.C. 22 near Myrtle Beach. Isaac said the main focus is building a stretch from Interstate 95 to the beach.
I-73 also will chew up hundreds of acres of wetlands, crossing swamps along the Little Pee Dee River that federal regulators say are nationally important. The U.S. Environmental Protection agency has recommended denying a wetlands permit for the freeway.
At Thursday's meeting, DOT officials told the board that nearly 900 of about 1,100 recent public comments favored building I-73. The road is part of a $344 million bond package that also includes money to build an airport connector from I-26 to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. I-73 will receive the most money, $105 million, from the bond package.
Nancy Cave, a representative of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said the public comments reflect an intense effort by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce to rally local support for the freeway. Cave and DOT board member Sarah Nuckles said they doubt people living away from the Grand Strand think I-73 is a priority.
"If this were on a statewide referendum, I don't think it would pass,'' Nuckles said at the DOT's morning workshop.
The funding package being pushed by the DOT board is expected to go to the state Joint Bond Review Committee this fall. It also needs State Budget and Control Board approval. Environmentalists and the EPA say the DOT should consider upgrading S.C. 38/U.S. 501 and S.C. 9, rather than building I-73 to parallel those roads. Those projects could be done more cheaply and with less environmental impact, they say. They also say there is no guarantee a new interstate will help the economy if built.
While Isaac said he doesn't know of any industries planning to locate in South Carolina if the road is built, he also said an interstate is needed to make the state attractive for industry.
"You have to have it before they will talk with you,'' he said.