A public forum on the proposed Interstate 73 Friday in the Grand Strand could turn contentious, as supporters and opponents have been sniping at each other since before it even began.
The North Eastern Strategic Alliance (NESA) is hosting the forum at Francis Marion University at 1pm. The purpose is to present the results of an economic study into building I-73, which would provide the Grand Strand with an interstate connection to I-95. However, environmental groups say the proposed route would unnecessarily destroy nearly 300 acres of wetlands.
The issues flamed up again after the local Sierra Club chapter urged its members to turn out in force for the meeting. The email accused political leaders of pushing I-73 unnecessarily, saying, among other things, that “NESA is the mouthpiece for the Horry and Pee Dee powerbrokers that support I-73 for their own self interests without regard to the fiscal consequences it will have on our state.”
Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President Brad Dean accused the Sierra Club of trying to hijack the forum.
“They’re certainly entitled to their opinions,” Dean said, “But to mislead people about the intentions of NESA and the fine individuals leading this effort, as well as to use this as… conveniently a call to arms to raise money for the Sierra Club, was simply inappropriate.”
However, the Sierra Club says it is not trying to interfere and only wants to present an alternative option. Local Winyah Chapter Chairman Bo Ives said the Chamber of Commerce took the comments out of context. “(NESA) is very sincere about getting economic development to the corridor of the counties that are going to see this highway,” he said “We think that the environment’s given short shrift in the current plan for the interstate. They did not choose the route which had the least impact.”
The forum will present the results of an economic study conducted by Virginia-based Chmura Economics and Analytics, which supporters say proves the need for the interstate. “I-73 will bring 29,000 jobs, nearly a million more tourists, new industry, and could save lives in the event of a hurricane,” Dean said, “The only question in our mind is what is it the Sierra Club doesn’t like?”
However, Ives said the study has weaknesses, such as not factoring in the effect of a new route on those businesses operating on Highway 301– currently the primary route into the Grand Strand from the west.
He said the Sierra Club would move away from environmental issues during Friday’s forum. “We think the economic impact is probably going to resonate more than the environmental impact,” he said, “We’re concerned about both.”
But there might be other impediments that have nothing to do with the efforts of Sierra Club and others. The push for I-73’s construction was renewed in April after the South Carolina Department of Transportation announced it was committed to spending $105 million on a critical intersection with Interstate 95. But that money would be paid for in bonds, which DOT commissioners are rethinking as the agency struggles through financial problems.
The bond would also have to be approved by the Joint Bond Review Committee and the Budget & Control Board. Several B&CB members (including Treasurer Curtis Loftis, Governor Nikki Haley, and Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom) say they are concerned about DOT’s borrowing ability.