Politics & Government

Why getting money for Interstate 73 is such a struggle

A Shrink-wrapped tour bus with Interstate 73 promos was a backdrop as Myrtle Beach area leaders gathered Friday at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center to encourage residents to be "cheerleaders" for Interstate 73 and other infrastructure projects this weekend when candidates are in town for the Republican Presidential Debate.
A Shrink-wrapped tour bus with Interstate 73 promos was a backdrop as Myrtle Beach area leaders gathered Friday at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center to encourage residents to be "cheerleaders" for Interstate 73 and other infrastructure projects this weekend when candidates are in town for the Republican Presidential Debate. sjessmore@thesunnews.com

By Washington standards, it shouldn’t be that hard to get money for Interstate 73, a decades-in-the-making, $2 billion project to connect 75 miles of road from the North Carolina border to the tourist hub of South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach.

But Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., the local congressman and the road’s key backer, is struggling to get the project going.

He does have support from his state’s two U.S. senators. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., recently called the interstate the second most important economic priority for South Carolina behind dredging the Charleston Harbor.

Al Simpson, a well-connected Washington lobbyist who was chief of staff to Mick Mulvaney before the then-South Carolina congressman became White House budget director, has been retained by the Grand Strand Business Alliance in part to engage the administration on the project’s behalf.

Back home, however, Rice is battling local officials who would prefer federal funding help other road projects. He’s also up against environmentalists who have mounted a legal challenge that could seriously thwart I-73’s momentum.

On Capitol Hill, South Carolina House members don’t seem too interested in putting serious muscle behind advancing the cause.

“I’m done with I-73,” said the delegation’s lone Democrat, Assistant House Minority Leader Jim Clyburn. “It’s not in my district anymore.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who represents a district on the other side of the state from where the interstate would run, was also noncommittal.

“I’m not going to be the one lobbying for it,” he said.

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., said he’s concerned about the steep price tag.

And Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said he’d prefer that proposed routing for I-73 address environmentalists’ concerns that large swaths of wetland would be destroyed during construction.

This is far from the same posture the delegation has adopted to fight for federal funding for the Charleston Harbor deepening project, which has united all nine lawmakers across geographic and ideological lines.

Rice and other advocates of the I-73 project see an opening for getting quick money in an infrastructure package Congress may try to fashion. It would be based on President Donald Trump’s proposal to give federal funding to “shovel-ready” state projects already bolstered by local investments.

But the likelihood that Congress passes an infrastructure bill this year are diminishing, and even if that money became available, it could spark fierce competition from within the state’s congressional delegation.

Sanford wants money to help ease debilitating traffic in his district.

Norman reported his constituents have dozens of requests for local projects.

Clyburn wants an infrastructure bill that does more than just refurbishes roads and bridges, but addresses water and sewage deficiencies in the state.

Duncan is looking for upgrades to the electrical grid to guard against cyber attacks.

Rice said he understood his colleagues are looking out for their districts, but said I-73, which would go through his district, was unique and necessary.

While I-73 would provide a direct line to one of the state’s busiest tourist destinations by connecting to other major highways, it would accomplish more than just that, Rice explained.

The new interstate would run through some of South Carolina’s poorest communities that have not recovered from the decline of the textile and tobacco industries. Most currently have poverty rates above the state average.

He said companies looking to relocate won’t pick places outside a 10-mile proximity to an interstate, and pointed out the interstate would allow easier access between Inland Port Dillon in his district to the Port of Charleston, allowing the smaller port to directly benefit from South Carolina’s most celebrated economic engine.

Should federal funds become available through an infrastructure bill, Rice needs to convince state legislators to invest some local money into I-73. It currently does not have state funding necessary to qualify the project for the framework Trump laid out last month.

Gov. Henry McMaster recently hosted a roundtable with federal and local transportation officials where he praised I-73 as a lead contender for funding from a Congressional infrastructure bill, but that might not trickle down to action from local elected officials.

Todd Davis, the mayor of Dillon, would likely lobby officials against I-73, saying it would divert business from his community, which he argues is on the verge of an economic renaissance.

Democrats may be swayed by the lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers from the Coastal Conservation League with help from the Southern Environmental Law Center. These groups are seeking to block the construction, arguing it doesn’t comply with existing environmental protection laws.

The groups say money would be better spent refurbishing other roads that would accomplish the same goal as I-73, and that studies of these alternatives should be done first. Rice refuted that assertion, in part because those alternatives would not meet the interstate proximity criteria that would encourage new businesses to come to his district.

The official list of South Carolina’s other infrastructure needs is also a lengthy one that doesn’t include I-73. Christy Hall, state secretary of transportation, told McClatchy its reason for exclusion had nothing to do with the project’s merits but rather because new interstates don’t quality for inclusion.

Short of federal funding, Rice said he’ll continue to scour opportunities to fund the project. He told McClatchy that while he didn’t want to pay for the interstate with tolls, he’d be willing to entertain the idea.

“Enough’s enough,” Rice said.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain