Large portions of I-73 have already been completed in North Carolina…. AND NCDOT Chief Engineer Mike Holder says, “The I-73 extension running from I-95 East to Myrtle Beach could be built immediately.” Mr. Holder is factually accurate in making this statement.
Enough funds are available now if the easiest route East is taken. So, what is holding up the expressway?
Strong advocates like Brad Dean of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, want to build the route through protected areas with a trade out of a conservation preserve known as Gunter’s Island. The State Newspaper of Columbia reported of a secret meeting this past September with Dean, where District 7 Highway Commissioner Mike Wooten was quoted as emailing, “I can’t stress the importance of keeping this close to the vest until the time is right to unveil it.” Wooten then wrote. “As you know, timing is everything, and we don’t need to give the intervening groups time to produce the drivel they will put out questioning the results.”
One of those intervening groups is The Coastal Conservation League. This group, along with a wide array of different supporters including area naturalists, environmentalists, locals, fishers, and avid hunters are very concerned about an area of Horry County, just east of Brittons Neck, that is blessed with a natural preserve called Gunter’s Island.
Nancy Cave, North Coast Director of the Coastal Conservation League, believes less invasive options are available that are cheaper and can be readily built, “The Coastal Conservation League continues to oppose a new alignment of I-73,” Cave said. She went on to say, “There are alternatives available. Upgrading Highway 38/Highway 501. Widening SC 9 to extend to I-95. Either of those meet the purpose and need.”
Highway Commissioner Mike Wooten himself has estimated a path which runs through protected areas would cost taxpayers approximately $2.4 billion. Wooten has suggested a toll road, to help cover those costs. Most local residents are opposed to building a toll road.
Conservationist Nancy Cave told our group, “Widening Highway 9 to extend to I-95 would meet the purpose and the need but cost taxpayers half as much.” Highway 9 does already exist. This road runs from Dillon, S.C. (a city that adjoins I-95) directly into North Myrtle Beach. Extending Highway 9 to I-95 would be a simple task. That project is shovel ready and could start right away. Our research showed that extending Highway 9 would cost taxpayers much less and get Myrtle Beach area tourists a direct route to our area from I-95 almost immediately. This North Myrtle Beach route would also be a huge timesaver with no impact on the environment.
And therein lies the problem. While advocates from the North Myrtle Beach area strongly support extending the existing Highway 9 route, large corporate money concerns like BRM Hotels, The Burroughs and Chapin Company, and Yiqian Funding Chinese Investors (who have set aside hundreds of millions for a downtown redevelopment plan where the old pavilion area once stood) are strongly against a Highway 9 extension. WHY?
Concerns among this group are that tourists will choose to stay in the North Myrtle Beach area above and beyond the Myrtle Beach downtown area if the Highway 9 project is approved and built. These concerns exist, even though such a plan directly connects the Highway 9 route with the existing expressway Highway 31 which runs from North Myrtle Beach to Surfside Beach.
In an all out full court press March 2014, Brad Dean of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, suggested a study to investigate using toll roads to make up the cost difference so as to build a road through protected areas to the existing Highway 22 road instead. In a prepared statement Dean said that a new tolling study is a positive step toward the interstate’s eventual construction. “We must explore all potential funding sources for I-73 and this study will advise as to whether or not tolls are a sensible option,” said Dean, who is also president of the National I-73 Association, formed to tout the highway’s benefits and lobby for its construction.
In comments found below, retired engineer Tom Stickler, who has followed this story closely for some time states,” Gunter’s Island is being offered by Mike Wooten as a bribe to environmental groups. Your article quotes his motivation for keeping the Draft Report on making I-73 a toll road from the public: Actually, the Draft Report on I-73 as a toll road by C&M Associates, Inc. is the “drivel” in this matter. Their projections of future socioeconomic conditions in the I-73 corridor were made by Chmura Economic & Analytics. That firm repeated the mistakes they made when they prepared the “Economic Impact of I-73 in South Carolina” study for NESA in 2011.
Miscalculations and Lies
Stickler adds, “That NESA study’s major errors were to overestimate the time saved by driving on future I-73 by 300% to 400%. The travel time saved was assumed to make tourists more likely to visit the Myrtle Beach area. Chmura claimed a 7.1% increase, then applied that to the entire annual tourist volume of 15.2 million, even though only a fraction would ever drive on I-73. These miscalculations are the basis of Brad Dean’s repeated claims of “29,000 jobs”. Chmura repeated these miscalculations in projecting future population trends in the area out to 2050 and, because of this, the toll report Wooten and Brad Dean want to keep from the public is overly optimistic in projecting future toll revenue.”