Environmental group says I-73 project illegal, should be stopped

An environmental group says a road project that's connected to the proposed Interstate 73 in South Carolina doesn't have the right permits and should be stopped.

In a letter to the SC Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, the Southern Environmental Law Center said that a $10 million upgrade to U.S. 501 and 301 in Dillon County wouldn't be undertaken, if it weren't for the fact that it will eventually tie in to I-73.

Since there is that connection, the environmental group said the state should have first obtained a permit to fill wetlands that will be impacted by the interstate and produced a financial plan for the entire I-73 project, before beginning the Dillon County project.

"Our letter said you can't have it both ways," said SELC attorney David Farren. "If this is part of I-73, you need permits and you need a financial plan. If it's not part of I-73, then you misrepresented the project to federal officials in getting the stimulus grant. Which is it?"

An SC DOT spokesman said the letter may be new, but the environmental group has made the same argument before. "This is basically old news," said DOT director of communications Pete Poore.

He said the 301 project is a simple bridge replacement that won't effect any wetlands. "The Corps of Engineers has already indicated that we don't need the wetland permits," Poore said.

Poore added the Federal Highway Administration stated in a letter to the environmental group that it wasn't necessary to have a full funding plan for I-73 to do the Dillon County project.

Farren said the next step for his group will be to take their complaint to the federal officials who approved funding for the Dillon County work. He said it's important to raise concerns about the project.

"It's important for the public to know that the transportation agencies are going full stream ahead, bending the law to move forward with a project for which there are no permits, for which there is no financial plan," he said.

Farren said existing highways could be upgraded to do the same thing as I-73 for around $150 million, about one-tenth the cost of the proposed interstate.

Grand Strand leaders have long sought the Interstate 73 project, saying the freeway would boost tourism to Myrtle Beach.