Legal challenge to I-73 urges hard look at cost-saving alternatives

Contending that federal regulators simply dusted off an old and outdated study to issue permits for an unnecessary and destructive new interstate, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League has filed a lawsuit to force a more thorough review of alternatives to the project.

The League, represented by SELC, is challenging permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the proposed Interstate 73. Its Myrtle Beach-based backers want the new interstate to connect Myrtle Beach to I-95 near the North Carolina border. But the price tag just for this portion of I-73 is what one expert calls an “exorbitant” $2.5 billion.

However, regulators have overlooked a better solution that the Conservation League and SELC have long pushed. Upgrading the existing SC 38 and U.S. 501 corridor into the “Grand Strand Expressway” would accomplish nearly all of the interstate’s goals, at one-tenth the cost.

According to a transportation expert’s report, the Grand Strand Expressway, or GSX, would be “a well-connected multi-lane highway network,” while I-73 would only add “redundant capacity” at an “exorbitant” cost. Highlighting its unnecessary nature, I-73 would run parallel to the Grand Strand Expressway route and just a few miles away.

“For too many years, Myrtle Beach special interests have been pushing a multi-billion dollar new interstate that will serve only one part of the state,” said Erin Pate, of the Conservation League. “This would hijack federal money from more urgent needs throughout South Carolina.”

The lawsuit was filed in Charleston’s federal court with the support of several businesses and civic leaders in the Pee Dee region. They have expressed concerns about the financial and environmental cost of I-73, as well as the effect on local businesses that serve travelers along the 38/501 corridor.

Town of Dillon Mayor Todd Davis wrote in a guest editorial for “There is no purpose for this interstate other that to funnel travelers and they wallets directly to Myrtle Beach and bypass so many of the local communities – Dillon, Latta, Sellers – that rely on visitors’ dollars to meet our budget.”

The interstate’s main cheerleaders are Myrtle Beach special interests that have not revealed how the project would be paid for, other than to indicate it would need higher taxes and tolling.

The interstate also would likely need the lion’s share of any federal funds that could be sent to South Carolina. That means less money – perhaps none at all – for priority transportation projects in South Carolina. I-73 is not on South Carolina’s priority road project list.

The overall I-73 concept was envisioned decades ago as an interstate from Michigan to Myrtle Beach. But only one percent of a national I-73 has been built as other states abandoned the effort as too expensive while modern travel technology has diminished the need for new interstates. Other states have found upgrading existing roads to be a cost-effective way to meet their transportation needs while protecting the environment and existing communities.

“An interstate that bypasses the region would be devastating to this business and dozens of others,” said Alex Small, manager of Sparky’s, a fireworks store and iconic tourist attraction on U.S. 501. “Our livelihood and the paychecks of the local workers we hire depend on attracting travelers passing through. Losing that steady stream of visitors would be a significant setback.”

“This lawsuit is really about forcing federal regulators to take an honest and thorough look at alternatives,” said Catherine Wannamaker of SELC. “When there are options that would save hundreds of acres of wetlands while saving taxpayers money, that is worthy of serious consideration. That hasn’t happened here.”

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