Myrtle Beach-area leaders among contenders for state transportation commission

Four candidates from the new 7th Congressional District, three of them the Grand Strand, were found qualified Tuesday for election to the district’s new seat on the state Department of Transportation Commission.

The new seat brings the group to seven members, who play an important role in setting priorities for new construction and road improvements. A former member of the commission said Horry County will benefit from having a local representative.

Found qualified were Rick F. Elliott of Little River, president of Elliott Realty Co. and son of a former longtime state senator; Edward F. Holowacz of Myrtle Beach, a retired Federal Highway Administration finance officer; James M. “Mike'' Wooten of Murrells Inlet, an engineer, president and founder of DDC Engineers Inc. and former member of the Santee Cooper board; and Byron C. Yahnis of Florence, president of beer distributor Chris J. Yahnis Corp. and a board member of the S.C. Trucking Association.

Candidates for the board must meet criteria such as education and experience. A screening committee reviews them and interviews them in a public session to determine whether they meet the qualifications.

If they do, they advance to election by the S.C. House and Senate members whose districts include the 7th U.S. Congressional District. That vote isn’t expected to take place until after the legislature reconvenes in January.

Candidates must have a college degree or at least five years of experience in transportation, construction, finance, law, environmental issues, management or engineering. They receive no pay for their service, but are reimbursed for expenses.

Additionally, they will be reviewed for “dedication, compassion, common sense and integrity.'' They must also pass a background check and credit check and provide a financial statement.

Horry County's pressing road needs, such as Interstate 73, will take longer to cure, if ever, without a sympathetic local commissioner, said Gary Loftus.

Loftus, a member of Horry County Council and a former DOT commissioner who has been involved in road issues in the area for at least 20 years, said local representation is essential.

“If you don't have representation, you don't get anything,'' he said. “It doesn't matter whether you deserve it or not, it doesn't matter whether you need it or not.''

The commissioners “set the priorities and establish the order in which they are done,'' and Horry County's needs would be buried under requests from more-populous Greenville, Charleston and Richland counties, he said.

Horry County would not have S.C. 31, S.C. 22 and the other improvements under the Road Improvement Development Effort (RIDE) of the early 1990s without a local member on the commission, Loftus said. Even so, county residents had to pony up their own money to get help, something rarely required of other locations, he said.

Nor is the area likely to see I-73 without someone from the district pushing hard for it, Loftus also said. The road was designated by Congress in 1991 but not funded, leaving it to the state to pay for it or seek piecemeal federal grants.

It's bad policy for the state's prime tourism area not to have an interstate highway connection, and the road has not been pushed to the forefront enough by the DOT, he said.

“It drives me absolutely nuts that we have to keep having the same dialogue over and over and over again,'' Loftus said.

The four candidates cannot begin to seek votes from legislators, nor can lawmakers promise a vote for anyone, until 4:30 p.m. Thursday, according to the screening committee's rules.

Elliott is the son of former state Sen. Dick Elliott, who served in the state House 10 years and the Senate 20 years. Elliott runs the family business, which was started by his father in 1959 and specializes in vacation rentals.

Holowacz worked for a number of years in the Columbia branch of the Federal Highway Administration, where he worked closely with the state DOT on road projects. He said he is familiar with the system and how highway funding works.

Wooten began his career as a dam manager for Santee Cooper, then went into private engineering practice when he founded DDC Engineers. He served on the board of the state-owned utility at a tumultuous time when former Gov. Mark Sanford made moves to privatize the agency.

Yahnis manages the company his family has owned for many years. He also has a residence in Murrells Inlet.