Letters to the Editor

I-73 | A storm of hurricane proportion

For years the taxpayers in Horry County, and the SC Legislature have been told by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, Pee Dee legislators, a U.S. senator and congressmen, that building Interstate 73 would “increase tourism and bring thousands of jobs.”

This sounded enticing, especially since it has been a steady drum beat for two decades. The I-73 proponents even commissioned an economic development study called the Chmura Report to make their case, and it has been widely circulated and quoted.

So, is it really true or does it have the potential to be another failed, “rosy” economic forecast like the I-185 Southern Connector in Greenville County? Even now, after a bankruptcy settlement last year, that 11-year-old toll road is still in the red.

On June 24, The Sun News ran a front page story about another economic analysis by S.C. economist Miley and Associates – one that states jobs and tourism might be increased at a fraction of the cost of building a new and costly I-73. Miley states improving the existing US 501/SC 38 corridor at a tenth the cost could still provide opportunities for development and thousands of jobs – and much sooner.

At the least, this analysis should convince Congress, the S.C. Legislature, the Governor, and the taxpayers there is “reasonable doubt” -- that there is a more efficient and less costly way to get a four-lane divided highway to the Grand Strand.

But, let’s throw out these economic assumptions and assume jobs and tourism aren’t as important as the issue of hurricane evacuation which is the justification named in the Federal Environmental Impact Statement for I-73, prepared at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars. It is also the justification that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s office recites from the FHWA environmental document.

So, the Federal Highway Administration’s main reason to build I-73 is for hurricane evacuation. This federal agency does not consider economic development studies! After all, invoking “safety” is an emotional issue that I won’t argue, even though FEMA, state and local emergency officials have a new 2012 evacuation plan that would evacuate visitors and residents safely without I-73. And this now includes expanded evacuation areas such as Carolina Forest.

This updated plan indicates that in a worst case scenario – a Category 4 or 5 hurricane with high occupancy rates and a slow evacuation – would take 31 hours to evacuate. This plan stipulates U.S. 501 lane reversal along with SC 544. If the mandatory evacuation order is given three days ahead of a storm – then it is clear that there should be no difficulty evacuating everyone in 72 hours.

Interestingly, FEMA is currently debating whether to make the mandatory evacuations five days vs. three days. The Myrtle Beach Chamber and the accommodations industry support three days. Clearly, tourism is about money, and is it possible that losing tourism dollars money might be a higher priority than safety? Surely not.

Let’s not stop there. Let’s talk about other road building besides I-73. The Grand Strand has had a significant increase in population – perhaps 30 percent - in the past two decades, particularly as retirees seek a more hospitable climate such as we offer in beautiful South Carolina. As this population increased, the taxpayers of Horry County and other coastal communities, agreed to pay additional sales taxes to widen and build roads to accommodate growth.

In Horry, they have done so in amounts exceeding $500 million dollars for the RIDE program, while the S.C. Infrastructure Bank and the SCDOT added another $850 million to the Horry transportation coffers – more than any other county.

Keep in mind that the SCDOT “contribution” came out of funds that could have been used to preserve our existing roads and bridges – but nonetheless were used to provide capacity improvements for the population growth in Horry. Projects include the Carolina Bays Parkway, the Conway Bypass and numerous other intersection and road improvements.

In addition, the SCDOT widened SC 38 to a four-lane divided highway coming off Interstate-95 to join U.S. 501, creating a four-lane divided highway from I-95 to Myrtle Beach.

Horry County is considering widening more roads, as well, i.e., S.C. 9 from Green Sea to I-95 providing a four-lane road from North Myrtle to I-95, and U.S. 378 from Conway to I-95. And Williamsburg area elected officials have been planning to four-lane the remaining portions of US 521 from Andrews to Interstate 95. Once evacuees hit I-95, they can take I-26 or I-74 west or I-95 north or south to get out of harm’s way.

What does all this represent in terms of getting cars out of the Grand Strand in a mandatory hurricane evacuation? The carrying capacity of the RIDE-funded roads accommodates the growth of the past 20 years. Add the carrying capacity of the new, above-mentioned widenings and you have doubled capacity. And, in the event of a mandatory evacuation, that capacity would be doubled again if the lanes are reversed.

If the tourism and resident population of the Grand Strand were to double (and that is a big “if”, and more than the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce has projected with I-73), there is still sufficient road network to evacuate everyone safely if a major storm threatens.

So, let’s summarize: If an existing alternative that is 1/10th the cost of an interstate is available Now and could, theoretically, have the capability of producing thousands of jobs sooner than I-73 – and, the existing road network is sufficient to safely evacuate everyone from the Grand Strand during hurricane season – why do we need to spend $1.5 billion on an interstate.

And why is I-73 really being pushed? Is there another reason that is not readily visible to the taxpayers? It’s hard to fight “big government”. Once those wheels have begun turning, it takes a lot of courage for the taxpayer to stop them. Former SCDOT Commission Chair Danny Isaac from Horry told me four years ago, I might as well “not try to stop the I-73 train.”

But it is time to stop and stand our ground and say “no,” not only to I-73 but to any unnecessary and wasteful government spending. I would suggest that South Carolina might add to its motto: PROUD TO BE PRUDENT (with public funds).

I am.

The writer lives in Rock Hill. She was a commissioner for the S.C. Department of Transportation from 2008 through June 2012.