An environmental group says South Carolina’s work on Interstate 73 should be stopped because it violates federal law.
The proposed highway would provide a connection from Interstate 95 and North Carolina to the outer suburbs of Conway and Myrtle Beach. Its future has been debated for decades, not the least of which is due to the project’s estimated $2.4 billion price tag.
However, the Southern Environmental Law Center, which opposes the overall project, is accusing the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) of trying to build I-73 in stages so it can avoid completing required environmental impact statements for more controversial sections of the highway.
Specifically, it is targeting the SCDOT’s planned upgrades to the existing intersection of U.S. 501 and U.S. 301 just south of Latta, along with the agency’s plan to relocate the Catfish Church Road bridge over I-95. SELC sent a letter to SCDOT in November requesting that highway officials receive approval for the entire project before moving forward with any construction.
“It changes the entire psychology of the permitting and future funding if they can say that the project is already started,” said SELC staff attorney David Farren, who said SCDOT applied for the $10 million in stimulus funds from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) by explaining the funds would be used to build I-73.
However, SCDOT says the improvements are needed even if I-73 is never built. The FHWA’s South Carolina office is backing the state agency up, saying the improvements are legal under state law. “Let me assure you that all applicable federal requirements for this …. project have been satisfied, and the FHWA has authorized construction,” FHWA’s South Carolina Division Administrator Robert Lee responded in a letter to SELC.
Farren disagreed. “We think the claim is bogus that these projects are independently needed,” he told South Carolina Radio Network, “They’re just saying that to skirt the legal requirement of having a wetlands permit and having a financial plan for the entire $2.4 billion project.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended denying wetlands permits for the entire I-73 project, saying too many acres of significant blackwater rivers and swamps would be destroyed (the proposal calls for 272 acres to be filled).
The SELC plans to file a complaint with the Federal Highway Administration’s office in Washington.