By Jane Lareau In this time of dramatic deficits – both state and federal – and severe budget cutting, it is inconceivable to me how state officials can look the other way as SCDOT moves inexorably forward on spending $2.3 billion on a brand new, unnecessary interstate to Myrtle Beach, I-73.
Senator Lindsay Graham and Representative Tim Scott – vocal and passionate supporters of fiscal conservatism under all other situations – not only are not disturbed by this mother-of-all earmarks, they are harshly criticizing EPA for legally and correctly recommending the federal water quality permit be denied.
Opponents of this new interstate have shown conclusively that simply upgrading SC 38/US 501 to an expressway — at a cost of approximately $150 million for the link between I-95 and the Conway Bypass — will achieve every goal Myrtle Beach boosters are seeking. Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina are upgrading – but inexplicably, South Carolina politicians and their special interest supporters are saying it must be a new interstate. Anything less to them is unacceptable.
Unbelievably, the current SCDOT plan is to borrow money to build a massive, useless $200 million dollar “interchange to nowhere” on I-95 and hope that the remaining $2 billion will somehow magically appear from the currently-insolvent federal or state transportation coffers.
The DOT’s own Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) shows this extravagant expenditure will shorten tourist commuting times to the beach by no more than 10 to 15 minutes. And that this proposed new interstate will consume all the remaining DOT funds needed to maintain and repair the state’s roads for the next decade.
Sumter representatives, where is your outrage? Rock Hill representatives, do you have no need for new roads or bridge repairs? Aiken politicians, do you not anticipate any new transportation needs for the next decade? Likewise Orangeburg, Greenville, Beaufort representatives – do you really have no problems with any of this?
This is the elephant in South Carolina’s living room. Much has been written about proposed I-73 for more than a decade so it cannot be that politicians are not aware of it. This has gone on long enough. Where are South Carolina’s tax heroes? Where is the Tea Party? Where are the folks from Taxpayers for Common Sense and United We Stand? Where is the SC Tax Council? At least one conservative organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, has stepped up to say they are concerned about this expenditure. One courageous DOT Commission member, Sarah Knuckles, has expressed her outrage.
But the rest is deafening silence. In that silence is complicit support. If South Carolinians wonder why their taxes go up, why we are in debt as a state and elderly, disabled and poor people are seeing their services cut to the bone, they must ask how this boondoggle makes sense.
The facts are out there and easy to confirm:
o The most expensive road to date in SC
o The most environmentally destructive in our generation
o Loss of more than 3,000 acres of productive farmland
o Parallel and no more than 50 miles from another interstate.
o A savings of less than 15 minutes travel time
Boosters of the interstate say it will provide jobs and economic stimulus to the counties through which it passes. Some jobs, yes – during construction. But I-73 will bring no more bounty to this region than I-95 did to the Pee Dee after it was built. The area is still severely economically distressed. Greenville built a Southern Bypass more than a decade ago, believing that tolls would pay off the debt when traffic increased as a result of the new businesses that would come. It never happened and the debt holders are desperately looking for someone (state taxpayers) to assume their losses.
Myrtle Beach historically has about 13 million visitors a year, without an interstate. It is not suffering, and indeed has been the engine behind South Carolina’s impressive tourism industry. Note that Hilton Head does not have an intestate, but somehow manages to struggle by and New Jersey’s Atlantic City has no interstate and a lot more tourists.
In effect – there is no encumbrance to visitors to Myrtle Beach. Somehow they have found their way to this seaside entertainment Mecca since the 1950s using existing highways.
But boosters believe they are owed a new $2.4 billion interstate. They will not even look at affordable alternatives that upgrade the already adequate roads to expressway levels. Nope. It has to be an interstate. And, we taxpayers have to pay for it.
Again, fiscal conservatives, I ask, where is the outrage?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jane Lareau is a former program director for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.