A bus full of Interstate 73 supporters made the trip from the Grand Strand to Columbia Thursday so they could speak to members of the South Carolina Transportation Commission.
The group is trying to get funding for the project back on the table after the Commission delayed a bond package for it in October due to financial problems at the Department of Transportation (SCDOT).
The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce worked with local activist groups to make the trip. It was a standing-room-only crowd for the commission meeting in the small room.
“We thought it’d be a very ideal thing to get some people in the community to be ‘voices in the wilderness,'” said Rev. Mickey James, the president of the Myrtle Beach chapter of the NAACP, “People that you don’t see every day and you don’t hear on the radio and you don’t see on TV.”
However, it’s not certain if the group had any impact. The issue of I-73 was not on the commission’s agenda Thursday. The commission’s public comment rules also only allow ten people to speak for no more than three minutes each.
The supporters also lacked any major political names this time. The most prominent were Myrtle Beach city council members Mike Chestnut and Randal Wallace.
The commission is waiting for SCDOT to get its cash-flow issues in check before it moves forward on the $344 million bond package. The agency struggled to pay its contractors on time earlier this year as it hit a cash crunch.The bonds include about $105 million for a proposed interchange with Interstate 95.
“It would cost us around $30-$35 million per year in debt service payments,” said commissioner Sarah Nuckles, who represents the Fifth Congressional District and opposes the I-73 project, “That comes right out of our state gas tax funds, which is the one that is so low. That also hurts reurfacing and bridge repairs on our existing roads.
Nuckles said she would rather see the state widen the existing Highway 501 and turn it into a freeway, which would cost much less than entirely new interstate. Most of the other commissioners support I-73, but agree that it would be inappropriate to borrow money for it until DOT settles its financial problems.
It is not known when, or even if, the commission will take up funding for I-73 again.
The group also met with members of Governor Nikki Haley’s staff earlier in the day. They reiterated that building the interstate would create thousands of new jobs.
“We’ve got islands of poverty where people don’t have any hope, where joblessness is the norm,” community activist Bennie Swanns said, “We came here today… to say ‘help our communities.'”
It’s not known when, or if, the commission will move forward on I-73 and the other projects, as Transportation Secretary Robert St. Onge has warned the cash crunch could continue into next summer. Two commissioners’ terms will also end soon, which means new members could also impact a decision next year.