South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said Monday he supports the Interstate 73 project that would connect the Grand Strand to Interstate 95 and beyond — and indicated he may be able to help pay for it, too.
In recent weeks, Grand Strand leaders, including Rep. Tom Rice (SC-07) and members of Horry County Council have asked McMaster to put some of the state’s coronavirus relief funding, which President Joe Biden issued earlier this year, towards I-73.
McMaster said he spoke recently with U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and asked her whether the state’s allocation from the latest coronavirus relief package could be used for a project like I-73. If so, he’ll consider pitching in funds.
“Everyone knows I-73 is a priority, and the good news is that everyone in this area … (is) 100% convinced, I think the state officials, including Old Henry, are 100% convinced that it needs to be done,” McMaster said in a speech to a committee of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
McMaster said he expects the Treasury Department to release the rules and regulations for the coronavirus relief funds within the next 30 days.
McMaster, however, declined to say how much money he would be willing to put towards I-73, saying instead that he’d like to see costs shared by the local, state and federal governments.
No state money is currently allocated to I-73, state Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said recently. Funding will have to come from the federal government, local governments and a special allocation from lawmakers.
“This is something we want to see paid by all of the entities involved, so that’s what we were talking about today with the leadership just before this meeting, and of course everyone wants to do their part,” McMaster said.
Before the speech, McMaster met with Chamber members and local officials, including Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune, North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley, state Reps. Russell Fry, Rep. Heather Ammons Crawford, Horry County Council member Cam Crawford and others.
“Everybody is aligned,” McMaster said. “Now is the time for us to pool our of our resources and all of the energy and get I-73 built.”
Bethune said Monday that neither the local officials nor McMaster made any specific dollar-amount commitments in their meeting.
Project with a long history
McMaster’s willingness to help fund the major interstate project is significant because, as it is with many infrastructure projects, money remains the biggest hurdle. The piece of I-73 that would connect Highway 22 to I-95 alone could cost between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion.
But his interest also seems to set the project on the fastest track to completion thus far in its history.
I-73, which would ultimately run North from the Grand Strand to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, has been in planning stages for nearly four decades. In 1991, Congress completed a study that said a Michigan-to-Myrtle Beach interstate highway was a top priority, but didn’t immediately fund the road.
Permits and rights-of-way were sought between the 1990s and 2010s and, in 2017, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers awarded a key permit for the Southern portion of I-73, from Myrtle Beach to I-95. In 2018, Horry County voted to put tourism tax money towards the project and signed a deal with SCDOT to start designing and paving the road.
But the City of Myrtle Beach sued the county over a part of that plan, the funding was put on hold, and the county walked away from the SCDOT contract.
This month, the city and county are expected to formally settle that lawsuit, unlocking a pot of money that could be leveraged for I-73.
Rice has said he’s attempting to secure funding for I-73 in Washington through Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure package. Several local leaders have said they’re willing to put up money for the project, too. County leaders have said they’d like to see funding commitments from the state and federal government before they again pledge funds to the project.
The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce also has been busy lobbying lawmakers, both federally, locally and in Columbia, to help secure funding for I-73. In a recent interview, Chamber President and CEO Karen Riordan said both U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott support the project, and the chamber is excited to have McMaster on board, too.
“I call it the ultimate triple layer cake,” Riordan said. “I mean, we have to have federal support and funding, we have to have state support and funding. And we’re going to have to have to find ways to have local support and funding. And it seems like the support is there.
“The devil will be in the details around what the funding mechanisms are,” Riordan said. “But we feel like this is our next big opportunity in 2021.”
More infrastructure money coming to SC, too
Though South Carolina leaders are working to secure I-73 funding in Biden’s big infrastructure bill, that package will include funding for other infrastructure projects in the state, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters on Monday. And McMaster said if the federal government allows coronavirus relief funds to be spent on roads, he’d like to spend of it on I-26 and I-85, too.
“I can promise you my support (for I-73),” McMaster said. “I think that although there are other roads that need to be widened, including I-26 and I-85, I think the priority schedule should include this, those and a number of others as well.”
The White House on Monday released fact sheets breaking down critical infrastructure needs in each state, highlighting roads and bridges, public transit, broadband, child care and veteran care as some of the key needs in South Carolina.
McMaster and Buttigieg have spoken on the phone recently about the state’s infrastructure needs, both said Monday. Buttigieg said it’s likely that several bridges in South Carolina will be repaired with money that is in the infrastructure package.
Using funding in the proposal for lead service pipe replacements and broadband internet as an example, Buttigieg said, “Literally any community of any size, we know that people will benefit from that.”
He added: “The 10,000 bridges that we’ll be able to improve, there is no question that many of those bridges will be in South Carolina. How many? Obviously that has to be determined.”
Buttigieg said even though he and Biden are both Democrats, he’s had little trouble convincing Republican governors like McMaster that their state could benefit greatly from such an infrastructure package. McMaster agreed.
“(Buttigieg is) aware that we’ve committed to transportation and infrastructure is key, and now is the time to make some great strides,” McMaster said. “And he’s aware that that’s what we want to do.”