A newly-filed lawsuit against the construction of Interstate 73 to Myrtle Beach claims planners are ignoring an option that would be more economically viable for the region.
The Coastal Conservation League filed the suit Tuesday that challenges the decisions by the Army Corps of Engineers to approve permits for the interstate that would connect I-95 and Myrtle Beach. The suit was filed in federal court in Charleston.
“We have filed litigation to try to force consideration of an alternative to a new interstate that would harm existing businesses in the area and damage or destroy over 300 acres of wetlands,” Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Catherine Wannamaker said. The law center is representing the CCL in this case.
CCL argues upgrades to the existing S.C. 38 and U.S. Highway 501 corridor, which it calls the “Grand Strand Expressway,” would be $2 billion cheaper than building I-73.
“For a decade or more we’ve advocated for upgrades to the Grand Strand Expressway to serve the purposes of the Myrtle Beach folks who want a new interstate,” Wannamaker said. “But the federal agencies failed to consider that alternative so, unfortunately, we’ve had to file our litigation to try to make that happen.”
But tourism leaders say the expressway would not meet the highway needs for one of South Carolina’s most-tourist friendly regions. “We’re surprised, but more importantly we’re disappointed that the Coastal Conservation League is once again thwarting public opinion and stepping in the way of progress for our state,” Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce President and President of the National Interstate 73 Association Brad Dean said. “We had hoped with all of the efforts to make I-73 an environmentally friendly project that the Coastal Conservation League would be a partner. But it’s clear that, yet again, they’re going to step in the way for progress for South Carolina.”
“Now it appears there’ll be yet another delay due to this ridiculous lawsuit filed by the Coastal Conservation League,” he said.
But Wannamaker says the entirely new route I-73 would take is a “waste of money.”
“There’s an existing four-lane highway in the exact vicinity of the proposed I-73, so they literally come within miles of each other, the existing road and the proposed road,” she said. “It could easily be upgraded, We’ve actually put a lot of money into upgrading that road already in certain areas, yet the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce folks are focused on a new interstate.”
Even without the lawsuit, a huge hurdle still remains: how to pay for construction. The state Department of Transportation has already made clear it will not fund the project without local governments shouldering the cost. Horry County leaders are trying to figure out how to raise the estimated $2.8 billion for their share of the project, whether through sales taxes or by making I-73 a toll route.
“We’re well on our way to a funding solution,” Dean said. “20 miles have already been built and put in place. The local Horry County government has pledged additional funds and the tolling studies indicate that tourists can help pay for much of the road with a user fee. So we actually think we’re closer to the funding solution than some might realize.”