COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster wants lawmakers to set aside $300 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and surplus money to pay for the first segment of a long-desired interstate link between Interstate 95 and Myrtle Beach.
The full 60 miles (96 kilometers) of new freeways and upgrades will cost $1.6 billion, and McMaster and other leaders hope by building the first segment, the rest of the road will follow.
“It may be the most significant step we can take toward making I-73 a reality,” McMaster said during a news conference Monday.
McMaster wants to spend $100 million in COVID-19 relief money and $200 million in surplus money from last year’s state budget that lawmakers set aside in case the economy tanked because of the pandemic. The first segment of I-73 would run from I-95 in Dillon County south of Latta to U.S. Highway 501.
The project has permits and has been successfully defended in court. Work could begin as soon as the money is in place, officials said.
I-73 has been a dream of tourism boosters and highway builders as anyone coming to Myrtle Beach from the north can’t get there without running into stoplights and a few small towns where the speed limit drops and police officers with radar may await.
Environmentalists have opposed the road as unneeded, and say it would destroy wetlands and farms. Bypasses of some of the most congested roads in and leading to Myrtle Beach have been built. People in South Carolina outside the region have suggested that a better use of highway money would be to build roads in areas congested by the 1 million people who have moved to the state since 2000.
The General Assembly will have to approve the spending and there will likely be a tough fight.
“Some elected officials and business leaders are touting the road as a silver bullet that will solve Horry County’s traffic problems. But the roadway is not designed to decrease traffic. It is designed to increase traffic to Myrtle Beach, bypassing towns and small businesses,” a statement from the Coastal Conservation League said.
Leaders who spoke Thursday in support of I-73 didn’t just tout tourism, but said a new I-73 starting in Dillon near an inland port rail center and trucking center would boost industry.
The new interstate would provide another hurricane evacuation route. Bridges over key rivers could be built higher to avoid the kind of near disaster the region faced when Hurricane Florence caused record flooding and would have toppled every bridge in the Myrtle Beach area if crews hadn’t rushed to build temporary barriers.
But tourism has always been the biggest reason for I-73. Visitors bring billions into South Carolina and about a third of those people end up in the Grand Strand — Myrtle Beach and the surrounding two counties, said Duane Parrish, the director of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
“The Grand Strand is the heartbeat of tourism in South Carolina. It is critical we have another artery to that heartbeat,” Parrish said.
McMaster last month asked lawmakers to spend $300 million to jump-start a project to eventually expand Interstate 26 to three lanes in both directions from Charleston to Columbia.
The General Assembly is considering how to spend billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief money. Lawmakers likely won’t finalize plans until early next year.
Monday’s announcement is far from the first time I-73 supporters have tried to gain both money and support for the highway.
Over the decades, they have tried to get federal money or promised to make it a toll road that will pay for itself. Horry County offered the state highway department money from its hotel tax to help build the interstate, but that ended up in a legal dispute.
Forty years ago when federal officials were first considering creating I-73, it was envisioned to run 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers) from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Myrtle Beach.
But only Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina have shown any interest in building the stand-alone interstate and thus far it is only in existence in North Carolina, where 100 miles (160 kilometers) of I-73 run over existing and new freeways from around Rockingham to near Greensboro.