Danny Isaac, the Grand Strand's voice on the S.C. Transportation Commission, is working a lot of hours to convince all commissioners, Secretary of Transportation H.B. Limehouse Jr., Gov. Mark Sanford - and anybody else who needs to hear the message - of the importance to the entire state of building Interstate 73 and specifically the critical interchange at I-95.
He's making a tough sell - and remains somewhat puzzled as to "why the entire commission, the secretary and governor are not demanding" that the interchange be constructed if all the key parties "say we need it, we want it, it can be done in less than three years," Isaac said. Several weeks ago, Isaac became vice chairman of the Transportation Commission, which governs the S.C. Department of Transportation. Commissioners are elected by the state legislative delegation in each of the six congressional districts. The governor appoints an at-large commissioner. Isaac, elected in 2008, represents the transportation district coinciding with the 1st S.C. Congressional District, a narrow strip running along the coast and including Charleston, Georgetown and Myrtle Beach.
Isaac says the importance of tourism to the state is the most important piece of the argument for constructing the I-95 interchange for I-73 and five miles of I-73 toward U.S. 501 - long the main highway to Myrtle Beach. The interstate would connect with the existing S.C. 22 to complete I-73 in South Carolina. The state was selected for a $10 million Tiger grant in federal stimulus money and faces a mid-May deadline for taking the $10 million or leveraging the money through a Tifia innovative financing plan. Isaac and Brad Dean, president and chief executive of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, say the problem with going for the Tifia loan route is how to repay the loan. Isaac says the loan option "forces us down a path South Carolina doesn't have the money to do." Dean said a third option is to seek an extension on the time frame for choosing to take the $10 million or leveraging it into a loan. How to pay back the loan is still problematic.
Isaac leans toward taking the $10 million Tiger grant money and starting construction. He says the interchange cost is $150 million and "we've got $75 million with the $10 million Tiger money." He says the rest of the $150 million could come from using $14 million each of the next five years from the annual $1.2 billion transportation budget. "It's very, very difficult" to move the entire commission to consensus. Some commissioners from the districts not directly affected by the construction may be leery about taking any funds from maintenance for new projects.
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Dean said "it's a good sign for I-73 that the interchange was selected" as a Tiger grant. "I-73 is a perfect example of the type of project the Tiger grants were written for." There were 1,400 applications and 51 were selected, Dean said. "In my view, it's significant" that Isaac moved rapidly to the vice chairmanship. Dean cites as a tangible example of Isaac's effectiveness: "He was able to get Charleston to pass a resolution supporting I-73." The interstate once was to end at Charleston, which of course has been the southern terminus of I-26 while the Myrtle Beach area remains the only major U.S. tourist destination without an interstate highway entry. That no doubt is a point Isaac will make as he guides the Transportation Commission to see the state picture.