Letters to the Editor

I-73, the time is now

In Horry County we are blessed with a wonderful quality of life, low cost of living and abundant natural resources with the ocean, rivers, nature preserves and Carolina Bays just to mention a few. We have outstanding institutions for education and job training in Coastal Carolina University - one of the nation's fastest growing universities and Horry-Georgetown Technical College. And we have one of the fastest growing populations in the country. People love to live here. But we don't have an interstate.

Tourism is the No. 1 industry in South Carolina. Horry County is the economic engine that drives tourism in South Carolina. Our county produces 34 percent of the tourism dollars for the entire state. But we don't have an interstate.

The Grand Strand is America's beach playground. We are among the top tourist destinations in the United States. We receive 14 million visitors annually. Of those visiting, 90 percent arrive by car and 75 percent come from I-95. All of those people are coming in on highways that were constructed 50 years ago and designed to carry a third of the traffic. But we don't have an interstate.

Horry County knows tourism. South Carolina ranks at or near the bottom in far too many categories. Tourism is one area in which we shine, and it is because of the Grand Strand. But we don't have an interstate.

Horry County pays more than its share. The county represents 5 percent of the state's population, but pays 11 percent of the states sales tax (third in the state); 34 percent of the state's accommodations tax (first in the state); 30 percent of the states admissions tax (first in the state); 13 percent of the state's Documentary Stamp tax (second in the state). But we don't have an interstate.

Horry County subsidizes South Carolina. Tourists visiting Horry County contribute over $300 million in taxes to the state annually. The state uses our money to pay for roads and bridges in Charleston, Richland and Greenville. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars are used as corporate incentives to lure Boeing, BMW and other high paying jobs to Charleston, Greenville and Richland. But we don't have an interstate.

We have done all we can. We've asked for decades for help on infrastructure. But the only way we got it done was to pay for it ourselves. Horry County paid 72 percent of the cost of state highways 22 and 31.

We are the only county that I am aware of that has ever built its own interstate, on the hope and prayer that eventually S.C. 22 will become I-73. We've built 28 miles of it, just about as far as we can, out to Aynor. We only lack another 45 miles across Marion and Dillon counties (who would also benefit greatly from the economic boost an interstate would bring) to intersect with I-95. But we don't have an interstate.

Horry County is desperate for economic diversification. According to the U.S. Department of Labor survey of wages there are 334 counties in the country with at least 75,000 people employed. Six of those counties are in South Carolina: Charleston, Richland, Lexington, Greenville, Spartanburg and Horry. Of the 334 large counties in the entire country Horry ranks at 334, dead last in wages.

At $580 per week we are 37 percent below the national average and 24 percent below the S.C. average. Despite our many advantages, Horry County has had almost no success in attracting industry in the last 20 years. I-73 would be a big help in attracting industry and higher paying jobs. But we don't have an interstate.

If we rest on our laurels, we will be passed by. There are existing interstate connections to the beaches in Virginia, North Carolina, Charleston, Georgia and Florida.

The Grand Strand is the most visited tourist destination in the country without an interstate. Per the 2010 Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce survey of visitors, the No. 1 complaint was traffic and access. Who knows how many visitors we lose each year, because they are forced to drive here on old inadequate roads? But we don't have an interstate.

Its not an expense, its an investment. The chamber estimates that with the faster driving times and ease of access generated by an interstate, tourism along the Grand Strand would increase 15 to 25 percent.

We would love to see the entire length of I-73 under way. However, we don't have to build the entire road to Detroit City to get the bulk of the additional tourism dollars.

If we could just build the 45 miles to connect S.C. 22 to I-95, it would cost a small fraction of the cost to construct the entire road. Yet Horry County could send an additional $50 to $75 million in tourism tax dollars annually to Columbia!

This ignores the additional taxes that would be generated by the economic diversification that the interstate would bring to Horry, Marion, Dillon and Florence counties. It only makes good sense. But we don't have an interstate.

We all know this is long overdue. However, somehow Horry County always ends up at the back of the line. For whatever reason, our voice in Washington and Columbia is too often drowned out by Charleston, Greenville and Richland. I assure you that nothing will happen unless you get involved. Call, write or e-mail your state and federal representatives today, and remind them: We don't have an interstate!

The writer is Horry County Council chairman.