Growth Tracker: The future of I-73; funding the biggest hold up to get it built

Grand Strand

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — Horry County leaders are rushing to build Interstate 73, hoping that the project will help manage the county’s exponential growth, while boosting the economy and providing another evacuation rate.

While Horry County is expected to see a record amount of growth, the county’s Imagine 2040 plan said there’s little to no growth among 20-somethings.

Area leaders believe the answer to the problem is I-73.

“Most industries looking to locate, 80% of them say in their top three criteria is within five miles of an interstate,” said Congressman Tom Rice.

Leaders said that’s caused missed opportunities for the area, and the pandemic has highlighted the need for economic diversity as the tourism industry took hits.

“It shows you how reliant we are on just one thing,” Rice said. “If we’re ever going to make it where our kids don’t have to leave here to find a good job, where we can keep our best and brightest in the Grand Strand and in the Pee Dee, we have to have infrastructure.”

Nick Santaniello, who recently graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a degree in accounting, said a lack of options sent him packing to Massachusetts.

“There’s not too many opportunities working for big four or any even really medium-sized accounting firms down in the Myrtle Beach area,” Santaniello said.

If he got a job in the Grand Strand, he would have stayed a little longer.

“I’ve seen and heard of a lot of people applying for jobs within the Grand Strand area that are kind of within their majors and they’re having to settle for waitressing jobs and nothing in their major,” he said.

South Carolina’s part of I-73 would run from the Rockingham/Hamlet area, into Marlboro County, and then Dillon County, before intersecting with Interstate 95, and then hitting Highway 22 in the Myrtle Beach/Conway area.  The price tag for that section is $1.3 billion, but the South Carolina Department of Transportation estimates the cost of the entire interstate is $2.3 billion.

Rice has campaigned on the promise of I-73. It’s been his focus since elected into office, but he said that a lawsuit from the Coastal Conservation League

“Hopefully that’ll get resolved here pretty quickly, and then finally it’s money,” Rice said.

Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught agrees.

“If we don’t get some federal money, as well as some state resources committed to doing it, then it is dead in the water because we can’t do it ourselves,” he said.

SCDOT said the first piece of the puzzle is finding local match money to apply for federal loans or grants.

“The days of the federal government paying 80% of the cost of roads is over,” Rice said. “That’s not going to happen. So there’s going to have to be a substantial contribution from the state and local government.”

To date, more than $116.6 million has been committed to I-73, $96.7 million of that is federal money.

Locally, the hospitality tax dispute pumped the breaks on I-73 two years ago. The City of Myrtle Beach and others filed a lawsuit against Horry County claiming the county illegally collected tens of millions of dollars through the hospitality fee.

County council proposed a way to bond the money for I-73.

“So we were going to contribute like $28 million per year to finance that part of it and then when we were sued to stop the hospitality fee, all that was thrown in the river,” Vaught said.

Horry County had to break its contract with SCDOT and lost out on federal grants.

The hospitality tax disagreement was recently settled, but the new agreement doesn’t mention I-73 outright.

“The agreement on the hospitality fee only calls for the cities and the county to cooperate on hospitality infrastructure, in other words, infrastructure that will support tourism and so forth coming into Horry County,” Vaught said.

SCDOT and Vaught said now it’s a waiting game.

“We are waiting on the, the county and the cities to, to come together,” said Tony Cox, the SCOT commissioner for the seventh district. “So we’ll know what kind of a local match that we have on an annual basis that could be bonded into a larger amount, to help with the local match.”

Vaught said he hopes that once the city realizes that it’s still necessary, that it can put together some type of package.

Rice said he’s been working with  members of Congress for a bipartisan infrastructure plan.

“It’s not going to be $2 trillion, but it’ll be pared back a little and it’ll be largely paid for, and that will be a great opportunity for funding for  I-73,” Rice said.

Rice said he’s been talking with state lawmakers to set aside some of its $2 billion in COVID-19 relief funds to help match the federal dollars that could come out of the infrastructure package.

Despite the 42 miles of road sitting in limbo, the key players haven’t given up yet.

“I believe in it and you know, we’ve come too far to give up,” Cox said. “We’ve got to have this road.”

Rice said he’s faced pushback, but I-73 is closer to becoming a reality than it’s ever been.

“We’ve got a real shot at funding right now, and we need to come together as one and all pull in the same direction,” he said.

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