Like millions around the globe, I kept up with the Olympics on TV. A few days go, the games went to commercial break and I settled in for what I assumed was another political campaign spot. Scenic landscapes, swelling music and a voiceover announcing the virtues of … a road. That’s right, a road. Supporters of the proposed I-73 project, the unfunded, unnecessary, $2.4 billion highway to North Carolina, have taken to the airwaves to plead their case. Well I’m not buying it and neither should you.
It’s no surprise that I-73’s advocates have kicked the PR machine into high gear. Just a few weeks ago, the Coastal Conservation League unveiled an independent study from Dr. Harry Miley, former chairman of the South Carolina Board of Economic Advisors, comparing I-73 to a revitalization project for existing roads. Using the nationally recognized and used TREDIS transportation model, Dr. Miley found that improving S.C. 38/U.S. 501, or the Grand Strand Expressway (GSX), would achieve similar (or better) results at a fraction of the cost of I-73.
The study sparked the predictable flurry of op-eds, letters and statements from the small group of voices who have a political stake in the I-73 project. But TV ads? At what point can Grand Strand residents be forgiven for mistaking the highway project for a candidate for office? One wonders what could have been accomplished by now if the money spent promoting I-73 had been spent maintaining actual roads.
Regardless, the TV ads do not change the facts. As of today, I-73 remains unfunded and without the necessary permits. Moreover, it’s hard to see how we could justify the $2.4 billion price tag while our state’s overall road maintenance needs through 2030 are estimated to total $20 billion, nearly 20 times SCDOT’s $1.1 billion annual budget. Unlike I-73, these failing roads are real – not proposed, projected, intended or envisioned. These are the roads we use to drive home from work, take our kids to school and transport goods to market.
Faced with these harsh economic realities, I-73 proponents often turn immediately to hurricane preparedness. Citing FEMA and Army Corps of Engineers planning studies, they claim that I-73 is essential as a lifeline out of Myrtle Beach in the event of a catastrophic storm. In reality, the new FEMA/Corps evacuation studies no longer base evacuation planning on hurricane strength, but on the combination of wind and water – in other words, storm surge. A well-maintained network of roads is less likely to be washed out by rain, water and wind and provide multiple routes to safety. Revitalized existing transportation corridors provide the safety we need at a fraction of the time and expense I-73 would require.
Without the hurricanes to turn to, I-73 fans fall back on the final line of defense. That we must continue because, well, because we’ve begun. As state Rep. Alan Clemmons, chairman of the National I-73/I-74/I-75 Corridor Association, wrote in a recent opinion piece: “It would be a gross dereliction of our civic duty to turn our backs on the community by abandoning this critical project.” I disagree. As you may be aware, the first step to getting out of a hole is to stop digging. And when it comes to the fiscal crater our state’s transportation infrastructure is facing, we must stop digging immediately.
With the Olympics behind us, one wonders where the I-73 association will spend its next few thousands of advertising dollars. More billboards? Direct mail? Enough is enough. Let’s stop wasting money on political advertising and put it where it counts: into supporting improvements to the roads we use every day and revitalizing the GSX.
Contact Cave, north coast director for the Coastal Conservation League, at coastalconservationleague.org.