International Drive project will seem easy by time we drive on Interstate 73

By Myrtle Beach Sun News Editorial Board

The Grand Strand is the southern terminus of the interstate, planned to stretch through six states from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
The Grand Strand is the southern terminus of the interstate, planned to stretch through six states from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

International Drive is open from Carolina Forest to Highway 90 a dozen frustrating years after voters approved construction of the extension that completes the road, but International Drive will seem like a snap by the time vehicles roll along Interstate 73 in South Carolina.

The new portion of International Drive, which has bicycle lanes on both sides, goes through an area protected because of its flora and fauna. Fencing hopefully will keep keep wildlife off the road. The environment, especially a concern for black bears, is the main reason it took so long to build the extension. Lawsuits brought by environmental groups, including the Coastal Conservation League, delayed the start of construction for years.

The environmental opposition via state and federal courts took on a life of its own, until a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit last year. Once that happened, weather delayed construction, but International Drive was built in a matter of months. Now, another legal action has been filed by the Coastal Conservation League designed to block construction of I-73, a highway vital to the economic future of northeastern South Carolina. The federal permit for construction was secured last year.

The Grand Strand is the southern terminus of the interstate, planned to stretch through six states from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. In North Carolina, I-73 is largely completed, paired with I-74 in the corridor of U.S. 220 in the center of the state. The Grand Strand’s first interstate connection has been planned for many years. It’s an important component for growing tourism, the main driver of our area’s economy, but the interstate is vital for attracting industry and for improved evacuation from coastal Horry and Georgetown counties during hurricanes.

“This [I-73] is not just about tourism,” U.S. Rep. Tom Rice of Myrtle Beach told The Sun News. “An interstate brings diversified industry.” He noted the opening this year of the Dillon Inland Port near I-95. “I-73 crosses three of the poorest counties of South Carolina — Marion, Dillon, Marlboro — that have had little opportunity.”

Rice, who represents the 7th S.C. Congressional District, including the Grand Strand, said, “I’m straight at it all the time — I’ve been fighting for it” since joining the state’s congressional delegation five years ago. South Carolina gained a representative in Congress following the 2010 U.S. Census, and Rice was elected in 2012 as the first representative of the new 7th District.

Horry County Council approved using $23 million a year for I-73 in Horry County beginning in fiscal year 2020, the money coming from the county hospitality fee. The Horry County portion of I-73 is estimated to cost from $375 million to $500 million. The new highway will link with S.C. 22 (Veterans Highway) at Aynor. The latter road, which runs to U.S. 17 Bypass, will require some upgrading to interstate highway standards.

Rice is preparing for I-73 funding after the first of the year — and the midterm elections of 2018. Rice and Sen. Lindsay Graham have discussed benefits and the cost of the project with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Two years ago, Rice brought the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, to show him the need for I-73. Rice arranged for a helicopter tour of the area, with focus on the heavy traffic on U.S. 501.

Horry County’s commitment of funds “is a huge benefit” in securing federal funding, Rice said. “It shows the state and federal governments how important this project is and makes I-73 rise to the top of the heap. I’m extremely confident.”