I-73 Study Called into Question by Some

May 24, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveMyrtle Beach resident Anthony Trinca left his state representative, Thad Viers, a message on May 13, a Friday, in an effort to determine where the Horry County Republican stood on a multibillion-dollar proposal to build Interstate 73 through to the Grand Strand.

Trinca waited Friday, Saturday and Sunday to hear back. And then early Monday morning he got his answer, in the form of an email from Viers. It was hardly what Trinca expected from Viers, who has sought to craft a reputation as a fiscal conservative.

“I couldn’t believe what he was saying in his email,” Trinca told The Nerve. “He was touting a study for I-73 and said there was no way we couldn’t afford to build the interstate to Myrtle Beach.”

Indeed, a glance at Viers’ email shows a missive extolling a report by research firm Chmura Economics & Analytics that’s long on superlatives related to construction of I-73:

The economic impact study for I-73 was released yesterday and the numbers look great! According to the study approximately 7,720 new jobs will be created just by building the road. After 20 years the job creation impact will be approximately 22,347 new jobs to our area. That along with estimated increases of $547.2 million in employee wages, $56.1 million in state revenue, and $43.2 million in local revenue make this project a game changer for our area.According to the Chmura study, based on the numbers outlined above, the road will pay for itself in FOUR years! If all current SCDOT projects met those requirements we would have a tremendous impact on the entire state’s economy. Essentially friends, we cannot afford not to build I-73.

Armed with all of that information I am asking for your help. By going to the I73 website www.i73.com you can see the numbers for yourself. After looking at the study I ask that you take a few moments and click on the link to the SCDOT website where you can make comments and suggestions. Together we can make a difference in this important endeavor.

The study was released a little more than week ago by Richmond, Va.-based Chmura, which was hired by the North Eastern Strategic Alliance, a nine-county organization that seeks to promote economic development.

NESA’s board members include Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and chairman of the S.C. Senate Finance Committee, and state Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg.

Few other Grand Strand lawmakers were as outspoken in their support for the Chmura study. State Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, for example, simply retweeted a Twitter post espousing backing for I-73: “I support it. Will bring over 22,347 jobs for SC.”

Clemmons is the chairman of the National I-73/I-74/I-75 Corridor Association, which is involved with the planning, permitting, funding, construction and maintenance of Interstate 73, Interstate 74 and Interstate 75.

Viers believes I-73 not only makes sense financially in that it will pay for itself, but that it’s necessary in terms of both handling the area’s increasing tourism and population demands and also to provide adequate infrastructure as a hurricane evacuation route.

“Meeting Myrtle Beach’s transportation needs are crucial to the development of the Grand Strand area,” Viers said. “I firmly believe that roads represent a core function of government.”

Viers added that overall there’s been a great deal of support among constituents for I-73.

Trinca remains unconvinced. For one thing, he sees I-73 as wasteful and unnecessary. South Carolina’s portion of the interstate would cost $2.4 billion, according to a 2009 study by Coastal Carolina University.

“Viers makes no mention of how much the road will cost, no mention of where the money will come from and no mention of where the debt service will come from,” Trinca said.

When it comes to major roadway projects such as I-73, it’s standard for the federal government to provide between 70 and 80 percent of funding, said Nancy Singer, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The remainder is covered by state, local and even private funding, she added.

That means if the state has to come up with 20 percent of $2.4 billion, it’s going to have to raise $480 million, most likely through bonds.

“The state would have to offer some really good interest rates on those bonds to attract investors because of our current bond ratings,” Trinca said. “And that would just throw the entire state budget into a bigger mess.”

Another Grand Strand resident casts doubt on the study itself: “Study: I-73 will pay for itself in four years. Really?” Charlie Lane of Little River wrote in a letter to the Myrtle Beach Sun News. “Seems like I-73 is a cure-all for the ills of the Grand Strand and Pee Dee. Jobs, no debt, and all we have to do is destroy a little of the wetlands, kill some wildlife, and neglect the rest of the state’s crumbling roadways.”

Sarah Nuckles, who represents South Carolina’s 5th congressional district on the state Department of Transportation Commission, told The Nerve that going forward with construction of Interstate 73 is a bad decision on many levels.

“The first thing I would say is why do we need an interstate to the beach?” she asks. “There are a number of other options that are considerably less expensive than an interstate, and it’s not like people are not going to go to the beach if there’s no interstate.”

Viers, though, says it’s not possible to upgrade the existing roads to the beach enough to handle the traffic.

“I would challenge anyone to leave Florence or Columbia on a summer day and try to get to Myrtle Beach on Highway 9 in a timely manner, for example,” he said. “It can’t be done.”

Perhaps more importantly, Nuckles said, some money that would go toward I-73 is money that would no longer be available to upgrade existing infrastructure, a serious concern in South Carolina.

“Let’s say South Carolina has to issue $300 million worth of bonds for it to cover its share of costs for the interstate; the debt service on that would be around $30 million a year,” she said. “Debt service comes out of the state gas tax, which is already around the lowest in the nation. It comes right out of funds that could be used for resurfacing and maintenance of our existing roads.”

Nuckles suggested alternatives that would be considerable less expensive than completing I-73 involving upgrading an existing four-lane road to the beach.

The cost for a four-lane expressway, which would likely be just a few minutes slower than an interstate route, could be just one-tenth or even one-twentieth that of an interstate, she said.

For evidence that an interstate to Myrtle Beach isn’t necessary, Nuckles pointed to the Atlantic City Expressway in New Jersey.

The 44-mile expressway connects the Delaware Valley and the Philadelphia metropolitan area with Atlantic City and other South Jersey shore communities, and is able to handle considerably more traffic than what is anticipated for I-73.

The jobs’ claims made in the Chmura study raise some eyebrows, as well. According to Chmura, for example, it is estimated that I-73 can support approximately 126 businesses by 2030.

That includes 42 motels/hotels, 36 gas stations, 28 fast food restaurants and 20 full-service restaurants around the interchanges along I-73. The direct output of these businesses is estimated to be $259.1 million in 2030 and each year thereafter, with ripple effects of $142.8 million.

In terms of job creation, service businesses will directly employ 2,231 workers in the I-73 corridor, with a ripple effect of an additional 974 jobs per year in South Carolina, the study said. Many of those ripple economic impacts will also occur in the I-73 corridor, according to the study.

However, it’s not clear if the study took into account the loss of businesses and jobs along routes that would be bypassed.

To witness the impact a new interstate highway can have on existing roads, one need only look at U.S. 301, particularly along the area southwest of Orangeburg.

At one time 17 million travelers a year passed through towns like Allendale and Bamberg as U.S. 301 was once a main tourist route from the Northeast to Florida.

All that changed in the 1970s when Interstate 95 was built to the east and the traffic left. What was once a bustling area featuring a string of motels and restaurants became an economic wasteland.

Viers’ recommendation that individuals click on the link to the S.C. Department of Transportation website and make comments and suggestions is calculated, according to Trinca.

Public comment is crucial in projects like this, he said. “That’s why his email was full of rosy numbers and no context. He wants as many people as possible to write positive comments.”

The public notice period runs until Thursday, according to Nuckles.

“Public comment is absolutely critical because it’s the one opportunity taxpayers have to ‘vote’ on transportation projects,” she said. “If enough people go to this site and make a comment before May 26 – they can effect change, as happened recently in Charleston with the Mark Clark Expressway project.”

Earlier this year, Charleston County Council nixed a controversial plan to complete Interstate 526 – also called the Mark Clark Expressway – between West Ashley and the James Island connector, a project that would have cost nearly $500 million.

At five public hearings last fall, comment was overwhelmingly against the highway. More than 1,000 people came out publicly against the extension, according to a recent Charleston Post and Courier article.

Nuckles says that given the state’s financial condition, the rising price of gasoline and the rising cost of construction, it’s probably incumbent upon state leaders to go back and look at alternatives to I-73.

“The old thinking in America was build it and they will come. And to some degree that was probably true,” she said. “Today, however, we need to be very careful about building infrastructure in the hopes that ‘they’ will come.

“The bottom line is this: Why buy a Cadillac when a Chevy will do?” Nuckles added. “Aren’t we under an obligation to be as careful as possible with the taxpayers’ money?”

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.