It’s easy to become cynical about the prospects for any new highway to the Grand Strand. After all, we’ve been promised one since the 1980s and have yet to see it materialize. But while proponents of Interstate 73 – or any new road to our area – may seem locked in limbo, there are a few bright spots on the horizon.
New DOT Commissioner Mike Wooten, the first to represent our new 7th District, is an ardent supporter of the road, which if nothing else will continue to ensure that the need for some sort of improved route to the Strand stays before the commission.
Along with a growing number of state leaders, Wooten also supports raising more funds for South Carolina’s roads, whether through raising the gas tax or some other method. As well as making sound economic sense, such an increase would also raise the hopes for building new roads, including any new highway to the Grand Strand.
And perhaps more signficantly for I-73 given the enormous cost, which South Carolina simply cannot afford to bear on its own, new U.S. Rep. Tom Rice has been given a seat on the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, which has already begun putting together the 2014 highway bill that will distribute funding throughout the nation. As a freshman congressman, Rice may not have a great deal of influence yet, but his seat at the table could certainly help direct more federal dollars to any local highway project.
There remain some significant roadblocks, however, funding being the most glaringly obvious. Yes, transportation needs in the state have garnered a larger spotlight of late. Gov. Nikki Haley highlighted the issue in her recent State of the State address, and legislators have shown a growing willingness to address the state’s road system. But most of that focus is on restoring and maintaining existing infrastructure. Outside of the Grand Strand, it’s hard to find much, if any, enthusiasm for a $2 billion highway connecting Conway to the interstate system.
It’s hard to blame state leaders. When the state Department of Transportation is already predicting a funding deficit in the tens of billions over the next decade just to keep up the roads we already have, it’s easy to see how building a massive new road to the beach could be a luxury that the state can’t afford. And as legislators continue to look for places to cut taxes, the chances of finding any substantial funding for the interstate shrink.
Not that local leaders are giving up, by any means. After the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative reception last week, senators from across the state went into the chamber Thursday morning and found I-73 promotional items left on each of their desks. The “fancy pens and blinky buttons” are fine and good, Gaffney Sen. Harvey Peeler said later that day, but before the state builds I-73 it needs to fix the other interstates that we already have.
Peeler was advocating specifically for money for I-85, which runs through his district. And therein lies one of the main problems for I-73 supporters. S.C. road building is almost inextricably linked to parochial politics in the state.
Sen. Larry Grooms put it well back in 2011 when there was a brief flurry of discussion of reforming the DOT commission (a reform that just as quickly fizzled): “Everybody wants to make sure that the roads closest to home are the ones that get the most asphalt.” Given that reality, legislators from elsewhere have never been particularly thrilled about the idea of building a road that they see as beneficial only to the beach.
Will a new road to the Grand Strand be built this year? No. But state and federal leaders could put in place a foundation that makes it more likely in the coming years.