S.C. puts the brakes on Interstate 73 plan

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S.C. puts the brakes on Interstate 73 plan

By GREG GORDON and CURTIS TATE
McClatchy Newspapers
Published Monday, February 11, 2013   |  733 Words  |  

WASHINGTON -- Business leaders in Myrtle Beach tried every tactic they could to win $1.3 billion in funding for Interstate 73, a six-lane gateway to their seaside getaway.

They coaxed dozens of members of Congress to tour the area, including five who've chaired key committees, escorting some of them aboard helicopters for aerial views of clogged traffic in one of the country's most popular resort communities.

The highway's backers commissioned economic studies that showed the road would generate jobs, industry and development. They bought TV ads. They hired former congressmen and a onetime chairman of the Democratic National Committee to lobby in Washington.

Myrtle Beach-area businessmen, road builders and their family members poured nearly $1.4 million into the campaign coffers of South Carolina Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint, three home-state congressmen, state legislators and political parties.

"I-73 is the largest economic development project in South Carolina history," Graham has said repeatedly.

Environmentalists hit back with studies that said upgrades to existing highways could deliver almost as much economic benefit at a tenth of the cost. But they found themselves outmatched by the deep-pocketed, well-connected alliance pushing the new road.

Beginning in 2005, I-73 boosters secured more than
$125 million from Congress and the state Department of Transportation for a 5.7-mile stretch of asphalt that would give them the beachhead they sought: an exit from Interstate 95, the busiest travel corridor along the Eastern Seaboard.

But in a testament to the condition of the nation's highway finances, South Carolina ran out of money before it could break ground on the roadway.

With the country short at least $14 billion a year in federal funding to maintain bridges and highways, other states are putting the brakes on new projects, including many for which their members of Congress secured priority status and federal funding.

A deeper look at the saga of I-73 and Myrtle Beach offers a glimpse of how private interests might influence decisions over highway spending.

PURCHASING POWER

The business interests behind I-73 seemed to have two huge advantages: money and powerful political allies.

For more than a decade, I-73 has been the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce's top priority, president Brad Dean said. The chamber joined forces with the larger six-state coalition in the 1990s to galvanize support for I-73 and a second interstate, Interstate 74, that would connect the Midwest with the Carolinas.

In 2000, members of South Carolina's congressional delegation had secured the first of tens of millions of dollars in congressional earmarks for a bypass near the town of Conway, 20 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach. That $386 million project, completed with state and county funds, eventually would link with I-73.

Next, the I-73 forces set their sights on the 2005 federal transportation bill, which contained 6,300 earmarks for projects around the country.

I-73 was a big winner, getting the first of nearly $100 million in earmarks. It was designated a "Project of Regional and National Significance."

The South Carolina Transportation Commission, whose members are appointed by state politicians and must approve spending by the state DOT, voted in March 2007 to name I-73 the state's top transportation priority.

Two months later, the state legislature passed a law that required Transportation Department engineers to evaluate a host of criteria -- including traffic projections, financial viability, environmental impact and economic development benefits -- in considering interstate highway projects.

I-73 didn't make the cut.

RUNAWAY ROADS

South Carolina's state-owned highway network grew during a spending splurge to more than 41,000 miles, the fourth most in the nation, even though the state ranks 40th in land area.

Numerous state officials criticized rural legislators who demanded the proceeds of a nickel-a-gallon hike in the state gasoline tax in 1987 be used to produce a maze of outlying highways.

As a result, some four-lane state highways led "from nowhere to nowhere," such as from Abbeville to Greenwood, with a combined population of 28,000, said Republican state Rep. Tracy Edge of North Myrtle Beach, an I-73 supporter.

But times have changed in South Carolina, which was swept by anti-tax fervor and hasn't raised its 16-cent-a-gallon gas tax in a quarter-century. It's now the third lowest in the nation.