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I-73 debate heats up after chamber video attacks conservation league

Construction of Interstate 73 has been a long time coming for the Grand Strand, and President Donald Trump's newly announced infrastructure plan could make it a reality if it is passed by Congress.

But the news doesn't come without drama. The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce released a video last week that targets the Coastal Conservation League, a nonprofit that publicly has opposed the project.

"The video is in response to two things. One is the Coastal Conservation League announced its intent to hold up the permitting process, which, they by law can do," said Brad Dean, president of the chamber. "And then they've also, the Coastal Conservation League has endorsed this notion that we would be better off by simply widening existing roads and while that might be, that is fanciful at best and foolish at worst."

The video advocates for I-73, saying the road will help bring jobs to the area, saying that the road would create 29,000 jobs and attract new industries.

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Mike Wooten, former commissioner and chairman of the S.C. Transportation Commission, said in the video the Grand Strand has missed out on opportunities like Boeing and Volvo due to the lack of an interstate, which Wooten said is on the top of the list for economic development placement companies.

On top of that, the video blames the Coastal Conservation League for the time that it has taken to get the road up and running. Wooten said in the video, "The CCL is acting on their own behalf, for their own greed, and their own power base."

Rather than building a brand new road, the Coastal Conservation League would like to see already existing roads utilized and improved, such as U.S. 501.

"We believe that alternatives exist for I-73 whether it's upgrading existing roads or figuring out a better way to get people to the beach that doesn't involve building a brand new highway and spending billions and billions of dollars," said Caitie Forde-Smith, communications director at the Coastal Conservation League.

However, the video calls this plan "laughable," saying that to cut off access points to U.S. 501 would cost more money than building a new interstate.

"Unfortunately the Coastal Conservation League has demonstrated, once again, that they're eager to stand in the way of progress and they made a promise several years ago that they would not object I-73 if it were constructed north of Highway 501 but yet they've broken that promise," Dean said. "And these are the same people that stood in the way of International Drive and are now threatening to hold up Interstate 73 and so we felt it was important to let the public know why this road isn't moving forward."

But for Forde-Smith, the important part is to create a conversation with the chamber about what projects federal funds should go toward.

"I don't think we're interested in going 'tit for tat' with the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce," she said. "We would really like to elevate the voices of folks in the Pee Dee who are opposed to Interstate 73 for valuable reasons. And so, we would rather not participate in the debate of us versus the chamber."

Trump's infrastructure plan

In early February, Trump announced a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that would use $200 billion in federal money to leverage local and state tax dollars to fix roads, ports, airports and highways, the Associated Press reported.

The plan relies on state and local governments to produce much of the funding, AP reported.

For I-73, the plan could help make it a reality, Dean said.

"We actually believe I-73 could be the poster child for the Trump infrastructure plan," Dean said. "When you look at what the president's proposed, he's made a bold step away from the traditional model where the federal government pays most of the cost and is pushing the responsibility for funding new infrastructure down to the local and state levels.

"We think the Trump infrastructure plan, if passed by Congress, could make I-73 a reality sooner rather than later."

The AP reported the plan would include two key components: funding for new investments and faster repairs for roads and airports. The plan also calls for a streamlined permitting process.

The permit for I-73 was approved in June by the Army Corps of Engineers.

As for the Coastal Conservation League, Forde-Smith said, "We think that, and we believe that any federal funding that comes to South Carolina should address our priorities because I think that, right now, if Myrtle Beach special interests had their way, the dollars would get funneled directly to Interstate 73, which we still believe and stand by is an unnecessary new highway project."

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