Study favors updating existing roads rather than building Interstate 73

akelley@thesunnews.comJune 23, 2012 

— Updating existing roadways would be more cost effective than building Interstate 73, according to a study by Columbia-based Miley and Associates.

The study, scheduled to be released this coming week, found that improving Highway 38 and U.S. 501, called the Grand Strand Expressway or GSX in the study, would be far more economical than the construction of a new interstate that in several locations would run parallel to existing roads.

The Coastal Conservation League has been arguing this position for years, but never had definitive data. That’s why the group commissioned the Columbia firm to analyze the two projects, said Nancy Cave, the northeast office director for the league.

The study uses a method known as Transportation Economic Development Impact Systems, which combines economic and transportation models to evaluate projects. It shows the benefit-to-cost ratio of GSX is 1.4, compared to I-73’s 0.26 ratio. Harry Miley Jr. said projects with a benefit to cost ratio below 1.0 usually aren’t built because it’s akin to investing in a project knowing it would lose money.

S.C. Rep. Alan Clemmons, chairman of the National I-73 Corridor Association, said he’ll take a look at the study, but said the concept of updating existing roads isn’t new.

“All road experts have already considered it and rejected it,” he said. “That doesn’t just mean S.C. DOT has rejected it, but all of the federal agencies like those in charge of wildlife and wetlands. They have each agreed the best alternative is to build a new interstate highway, and to re-plow that ground seems to be a foolish waste of resources.”

For the Conservation League, it’s not simply about acreage of wetlands destroyed, though it claims I-73 would fill in 313 acres, while widening Highway 38 and U.S. 501 by a 300-foot radius would affect 119 acres of wetland, and a 200-foot radius would drop that number to just 50 acres.

“One of our missions is obviously the environment, but it’s communities,” Cave said. “We are looking at particularly infrastructure-type projects to see how communities, people and taxpayers are going to be affected. An interstate which is so big and so expensive has multiple impacts on communities.”

Building I-73 has been at the forefront of campaigning by incumbents and challengers alike for months from the presidential primary to the 7th Congressional District, with most candidates saying the road needs to be built in order to help fix the economy and jump-start job creation.

President Obama favors earmarking money for roads, investing almost $500 million into 47 transportation projects in 34 states Friday, although no projects in South Carolina received a portion of that money.

“President Obama’s support for an America built to last is putting people back to work across the country building roads, bridges and other projects that will mean better, safer transportation for generations to come,” said U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “TIGER [Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery] projects mean good transportation jobs today and a stronger economic future for the nation.”

Miley’s study said the GSX will create jobs more quickly than I-73 and the jobs wouldn’t be centered on construction.

Still, Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, insists I-73 will provide jobs beyond construction and beyond Myrtle Beach.

“New jobs will occur throughout the corridor particularly in Marion Marlboro and Dillon,” he said. “They’ve experienced double digit unemployment long before double digit unemployment was the norm.”

Rural communities may see benefits in the initial construction phase, but Miley said interstates don’t help those areas in the long-term.

“Some of the poorest communities, and poorest for a long time, are right smack in the middle of an interstate highway,” he said. “It generates activity during the construction, nobody argues that, but when the construction is over the economic activity goes away.”

The traffic would be diverted from those rural spots to the interchanges of the highway where large national companies often operate instead of the small business owner, he said.

“We can’t just automatically say this creates a lot of new jobs,” he said. “It might destroy a lot of jobs.”

Instead, improving the existing routes would enable establishments to remain in place, Miley said.

He compared the job markets in the rural communities along I-95 with the future areas on the I-73 corridor. Only two of 13 that run adjacent to I-95 had unemployment rates below 9.5 percent in January 2012. The other 11 counties had unemployment rates on average about 4.5 percent above the state’s average.

That means, according to his study, that areas like Latta, Dillon and Marion might have even more economic trouble than before.

Clemmons said the problems on the I-95 corridor won’t translate to I-73.

“The one thing we need to be certain to provide along with the interstate is the new infrastructure that was left out when 95 was built,” he said. “You can look at exits on 95 where there’s no water, no sewer you can’t get the utilities you need. A necessary part of construction will be the inclusion of those utilities and were very focused on that.”

He also said it’s a necessary project to diversifying the economy in Myrtle Beach so the Grand Strand doesn’t rely on tourism alone.

“More than 80 percent of [new jobs in the state] are within 10 miles of a highway,” he said. “That’s not by accident. Without interstate linkage in this region we are at a significant disadvantage to ever being able to diversify our industries leaving tourism not as the dominant industry, but the principal industry.”

Miley said construction of I-73 would make sense if there was no other route to the Grand Strand, but because there are alternatives it’s worth considering the issue.

“A lot of the improvements in terms of traffic flow could be attained at the fraction of the cost,” he said. “You don’t have all those relocation issues and the timeline to make the improvements to S.C. 38 and U.S. 501 is a fraction of building a new interstate.”

I-73 would come from I-95 to S.C. 22, diverting some travelers away from U.S. 501, but Miley said that still wouldn’t help areas east of Conway.

“You have this tremendous problem because you still have the bottleneck east of Conway,” he said. “There would still be tremendous congestion issues that Myrtle Beach and the rest of the area is going to wrestle with.”

Clemmons said he expects the Conservation League and similar agencies to file lawsuits delaying the construction.

“It’s time to build,” he said. “It’s time to stop talking about it. It’s time for our detractors to file their lawsuits.”

If a lawsuit is filed, Clemmons said it could add another two years to the timetable.

Contact AMANDA KELLEY at 626-0381.

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