In the waning days of 2019, it seemed like the Interstate 73 project might be stalled for the foreseeable future.
In mid-November that year, the Horry County Council voted unanimously to walk away from a contract it had struck with the South Carolina Department of Transportation to design and build the major interstate highway, that would give the Grand Strand its first-ever direct connection to the national interstate system.
Horry County Council had previously voted to dedicate a portion of the hospitality fee funds — money collected from restaurant meals, hotel stays and event tickets — to I-73, in addition to using some of that money for public safety. But that latter spending rankled leaders in Myrtle Beach and the other cities, who sued the county earlier in 2019 over the plan. A judge ordered the county to stop collecting the hospitality fee, and the money the county had collected previously sat in a bank account, frozen.
“If Horry County is the only entity willing to kick in money, it’s never going to get done,” Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said ahead of the November 2019 vote.
So, the county walked away from the SCDOT contract, and I-73 stalled.
Now though, some local leaders believe the stars may finally be aligning for a funding and construction plan for I-73 to come together. Horry County and Myrtle Beach are expected to formally settle the lawsuit over the hospitality fee, freeing up that funding, just two weeks from now, and U.S. Rep. Tom Rice (SC-7th) is working in Washington, D.C. to secure funding for the road in President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure package.
“The infrastructure package certainly creates pathways for funding that have not previously existed,” Rice said in a statement about Biden’s infrastructure proposal. “I can assure you I will fight to make sure this money can be used to fund construction of new interstates such as I-73.”
Local government leaders, too, are hopeful, though more cautious, that now could be the right time for concrete progress on the project. Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune, for example, said she’s begun meeting with the Chamber of Commerce and state lawmakers about moving forward on the project, while North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley said her city would be willing to pledge money to the project.
“I can’t say for certain that this will be a reality, because we aren’t at that point yet, but we have the right people involved, and we have the opportunity…to get some funding,” Bethune said. “The city, county, Chamber of Commerce, Governor, state legislature, we all need to be singing from the same page. The willingness is there.”
Horry County leaders are more cautious about moving forward, but are still supportive of the project, several said in recent interviews. Be it I-73 or another, similar roadway to better connect the Grand Strand, they’d like to move forward if funding is available and the municipalities are on board.
“The problem we have in Horry County is that we need a nice interstate connecting us to the other interstates to bring people in here but we’ve got to fix the roads we have here,” Gardner said recently. “We need to fix what we’ve got and we need to bring something new in here.”
Gary Loftus, one of the County Council members who represents part of Myrtle Beach, said I-73 is needed because it would both get more tourists to the Grand Strand faster, boosting the tourism economy, but also give locals an easier way out of the region in case of another bad storm. He added that he’d like to see Biden’s infrastructure package fund I-73.
“If there’s any time money will be available, the way Washington is printing it and throwing it around, it’s going to be now,” Loftus said. “If we don’t get what we should get then someone else will get it.”
What has to happen
Nearly four decades ago, the United States Congress first ordered a study of an interstate highway that would connect Myrtle Beach’s blossoming tourism industry with several other states, the road ultimately running North to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Proposed routes would have I-73 connect SC 22 to I-95 and then continue North.
Leaders across the Grand Strand have long said that such a roadway could transform the region. Not only could it serve as a major boost to the tourism economy by allowing visitors to get here more easily, it could also open Horry County up to other industries, like logistics, shipping and manufacturing since it would finally have interstate access.
“Infrastructure equals opportunity. I 73 would spread opportunity throughout our district,” Rice said. “Our almost singular reliance on tourism yields a shockingly low wage for Horry residents. Too often, our best and brightest are forced to move away to find good jobs.”
By 1991, the Congressional study was complete and Congress called the Michigan-to-Myrtle Beach route a high priority.
But Congress didn’t immediately fund the road. Still, state and federal agencies began making progress by planning the route, buying up land for the right-of-way and seeking necessary permits. In 2017, I-73 cleared a major hurdle when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers awarded a permit to the project, clearing the way for 80 miles of roadway to be built from the Grand Strand to the North Carolina border. Several months prior the South Carolina Dept. of Health and Environmental Control awarded its own permit to the project.
Funding, however, would prove to be a tricky matter. The SCDOT at the time said funding would have to come from the municipalities and the federal government. In 2018, the Horry County Council voted to allocate $20 million a year from the hospitality fee to I-73, though that vote would ultimately lead to the cities suing the county the following year.
Christy Hall, the current transportation secretary for SCDOT, said this week that no state money is currently allocated for the project and that the legislature would have take new action to put state funds toward I-73.
“We expect that it will continue to be primarily funded by special federal funding such as congressional earmarks or USDOT grants, South Carolina General Assembly special appropriations or locally identified funding,” Hall said in an email. She added, though, that SCDOT was excited to hear of Biden’s infrastructure plan.
In total, according to SCDOT, the first phase of I-73, the portion that would connect Myrtle Beach to I-95, could cost anywhere from $1.2 to $1.6 billion.
And funding is likely to remain tricky. Though its unclear how the money will come together, funding for I-73 will likely come primarily from the federal government with smaller allocations from Horry County municipalities and South Carolina. The settlement of the hospitality fee lawsuit means Horry County, Myrtle Beach and other cities can again decide if they want to dedicate that money to I-73, and Rice said at a recent town hall event in Myrtle Beach that he plans to ask Gov. Henry McMaster to allocate some of the state’s $2 billion coronavirus relief funding to I-73.
Local funding is likely to come from the taxes and fees the municipalities charge tourists. Hatley, of North Myrtle Beach, said her city is likely to use hospitality fee or accommodations tax money for the project, but declined to say how much the city would be willing to commit. Bethune, too, said Myrtle Beach was willing to put money towards the project but declined to say which money or how much.
Gardner said he’d like to see a funding commitment from the state or federal government before the County Council allocates money to I-73 again.
“We’ve had zero from the feds, we’ve had zero from the state. We don’t have a commitment,” he said. “And if we could get something from the state and something from the federal government then that would make it doable. Right now it’s not even doable.”
Aside from the funding hurdles, I-73 also faces two additional complications: An environmental lawsuit and the very federal funding that could make it a reality.
In 2017, after the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers granted an environmental permit to I-73, the Coastal Conservation League, in conjunction with the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed a lawsuit to reverse that permit, in part because construction of I-73 would fill in hundreds of acres of wetlands. SCDOT previously purchased 6,800 acres of Gunter’s Island in an effort to make up for those harms to wetlands. Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney with SELC, said this week that the environmental groups are preparing to file their final court papers in the case this month before a judge weighs in, likely sometime this summer. If a judge upholds the permit, the environmental groups could continue to appeal the permit to the federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court, though Wannamaker said they haven’t settled on a future strategy yet.
However, Wannamaker said, the environmental groups have not asked the court to halt the planning or funding of I-73, so those efforts can continue on without opposition from the court or the groups.
Another potential complication comes in the details of Biden’s infrastructure plan: It’s not clear if the package would fund the construction of new roads, or only upgrades to existing roads. Asked about that, a White House spokesperson said last week that more specifics of the plan, including details about what projects in each state the money could go towards, would be released this week. It’s likely that more details will be hammered out as the plan heads to Congress for debate and amendment.
In the meantime, though, the road ahead for I-73 appears to be paved as smoothly as it has been in a long time.
“We as a county are going to have to come together, reorganize ourselves…and we’re going to have to go and speak with one voice if we’re going to push for I-73,” Hatley said. “It’s going to take all of us working together to accomplish this goal.”