March 26, 2014

DOT to study impact tolls could have on funding I-73

Tolls could help pay for the construction of Interstate 73 in South Carolina, depending on the results of a study the S.C. Transportation Commission is expected to approve during its next meeting.

Tolls could help pay for the construction of Interstate 73 in South Carolina, depending on the results of a study the S.C. Transportation Commission is expected to approve during its next meeting.

S.C. Department of Transportation Commissioner Mike Wooten – who represents the state’s 7th Congressional District, which includes Horry and Georgetown counties – told the commission this month he intends to formally ask for the study during the group’s April 17 meeting in Columbia. DOT staff already is putting together a request for proposals that will be advertised if the commission gives its approval.

Wooten said he expects the study will cost between $150,000 and $200,000 to complete. Money for the study will come from a state I-73 fund that already has about $53 million set aside for rights of way acquisitions and feasibility studies.

“Now that permitting is imminent, it’s time to take a look at how we’re going to build it,” Wooten said of I-73, which would stretch from Michigan to Briarcliffe Acres. It would be the first interstate to be built in the U.S. in decades, with its South Carolina portion estimated to cost at least $2.4 billion.

Wooten said tolls likely would be combined with other funding sources to pay for construction.

“Tolling is not going to be enough to pay for it all, it’s just one tool in our toolbox,” he said. “We need to know whether that tool is a ball-peen hammer or a sledgehammer.”

While a study conducted last decade included some information about the impact tolls could have on funding I-73, Wooten said it was a “shoestring approach” that lacked detail and now is outdated. The new study would provide an analysis of how much bonding capacity could be supported with interstate tolls. Both the state legislature and the federal government have approved using tolls as a means to fund I-73 construction.

Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that a new tolling study is a positive step toward the interstate’s eventual construction.

“We must explore all potential funding sources for I-73 and this study will advise as to whether or not tolls are a sensible option,” said Dean, who also is president of the National I-73 Association, formed to tout the highway’s benefits and lobby for its construction.

There currently is no funding source for I-73, although local officials are lobbying federal legislators to include the project in this year’s Highway Reauthorization Bill, which provides money for large-scale transportation projects.

However, a study by the Congressional Budget Office shows transportation spending could reach a crisis point in the coming years as money flowing into the federal highway trust fund falls short of the fund’s obligations by 2015. Congress will have to either raise the federal gas tax by a dime per gallon or cut highway spending from $51 billion to $4 billion – or a combination of the two – just to break even, according to the study.

Environmentalists have opposed I-73, saying existing roads can be upgraded for less money and with fewer impacts to the environment while still achieving the traffic-related goals of a new interstate.

Nancy Cave, north coast director for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said she is skeptical of plans to use tolls to pay for I-73.

“Tolling has not been particularly successful in South Carolina,” she said, pointing to Greenville’s Southern Connector toll road – which has struggled to pay its debt because of low traffic volumes – as an example. “The previous I-73 toll study did nothing to move the proposed interstate forward and it seems unlikely that a new study will have a different outcome.”

DOT is awaiting decisions on a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control before I-73 construction could begin. Those permits should be ready by late this summer.

Cave told The Sun News there are no set plans to challenge the permit.

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