What’s the ultimate reason we’re pursuing I-73? That’s the question Sunday’s editorial asks, in the hopes of sparking a conversation on the best way of fulfilling that reason, whatever it is:
The ongoing debate over the long-delayed construction of Interstate 73 comes down in the end to one question: What’s the goal we’re hoping to achieve?
If the goal is specifically a new interstate, then continuing our three-decade pursuit of I-73 is the path to choose. If, however, the goal is the less specific task of easing transportation to and from the Grand Strand, the choices widen.
An interstate highway, with all that the designation brings, was not always a given in our area. While an improved connection from I-95 to U.S. 17 has been planned since at least 1982, it was not until the mid-‘90s that Congress mandated that the road should meet interstate standards – a mandate that conservation groups still dispute.
That assumption, that any improvement in the route from Myrtle Beach to I-95 would have to be a wide, controlled-access interstate, has directed the course of the project since and played a large role in the initial rejection of upgrading current highways. Indeed, the cost of acquiring rights of way sufficient to expand existing roads to the width of an interstate is prohibitively expensive given the development that lines our roads. Hence the plan for a brand new road. But is the construction of an interstate the only way to make it easier to drive to Myrtle Beach?
Conservation groups – specifically the Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Environmental Law Center – don’t think so. The groups have long complained that the construction of I-73 would be atrociously expensive, wasteful and harmful to the environment, while not generating the return that might justify such costs.
The problem has been that their complaints have come without a well-researched, solid alternative of their own to offer. As we deal each summer with massed traffic and crowded roads, it’s been clear that some action needs to be taken. Simply complaining about the solution already on the table is not good enough.
With that in mind, it has been good to see a real proposed alternative presented in recent months – a more modest upgrading of U.S. 501 and S.C. 38 rather than the construction of a brand new road. Proponents of this alternative, now with an economic study to back them up, say that it could be constructed at about a tenth of the cost of I-73’s segment from S.C. 22 to I-95, while providing many of the same benefits: increased jobs and faster driving times, while also protecting existing businesses that may be hurt by the rerouting of traffic onto a new I-73.
Those upgrades would not come without their own problems, most notably the inconvenience to tourists during construction and to residents in case of a hurricane evacuation, an issue that would need to be carefully planned around if the design ever left the drawing board.
But what about the jobs that I-73 is predicted to bring? Wouldn’t we lose out on those if we abandon the interstate plan now? Well, it’s hard to say. Of the 30,000 or so potential jobs cited in an economic analysis of the road sponsored by supporters, about 7,700 are temporary, lasting only as long as the road is under construction. Another 3,200 come from anticipated new roadside services, such as motels and gas stations. And the vast majority of lasting jobs – nearly 19,000 – are predicted to come from a resulting increase in tourism in the Myrtle Beach area. That expected increase stems from the logical assumption that tourists are more likely to come if it’s easier to get here. But it also implies that any other improvement that would similarly reduce travel time would generate the same results.
Of course, there are also many unknowns. Would we be able to attract more businesses if we had an interstate rather than another option? It’s possible. The same economic study often cited by I-73 supporters also notes, however, that while manufacturing plants still tend to locate close to interstates, the wide-ranging importance of such highway connections “has diminished over time; this is due to the development of computer and communication technology, as well as the declining roles of manufacturing in the national economy.”
And, indeed, while we have long supported the goal of improving transportation options to and from our coast, it has been difficult to stomach a $1.3 billion project that would result in only 20 minutes of saved time on the road.
That enormous pot of money needed to construct I-73 is its own problem. While $74 million had been spent through March of this year on the road in South Carolina, with another $51 million committed, there’s a long way to go, especially if builders hope to build the entire $2.4 billion project and not merely the $1.3 billion link from S.C. 22 to I-95. Worryingly, these massive costs come in a state whose Department of Transportation has said it cannot afford to maintain the roads already existing and in a federal budget environment that sees major new expenses as an anathema. Supporters of alternate solutions point convincingly to the idea that upgrades to existing roads could be accomplished much more cheaply and in phases, putting money to work as it becomes available.
Is it time to abandon I-73 and all the work put in on the road since 1982? Not necessarily. But perhaps it’s time to think again about the goals we hope to realize with the road’s construction and decide whether the current plan is still the best option. To adjust expectations to the current environment is not to admit defeat or abandon our dream. It can mean instead acting as the best stewards of limited resources provided by taxpayers.
(By the way, those who want more info can find links to all of the studies and research done on I-73 attached to this editorial at MyrtleBeachOnline.com/opinion.)