I-73 supporters, opponents debate freeway's merits

Members of environmental groups opposed to the planned Interstate 73 complain the freeway would be too expensive and would negatively impact sensitive wetlands in South Carolina.

Opponents had a chance to express their views at a forum put on by a group that supports I-73. The North Eastern Strategic Alliance, an economic development group representing 9 counties in the Pee Dee and Grand Strand, held the public forum on the Francis Marion University campus Friday.

The meeting produced few fireworks, as representatives from each side took turns at the microphone to offer their opinions.

Opposing the interstate were groups like the Coastal Conservation League, which claims state transportation officials should have considered alternatives to I-73 that wouldn't rip through hundreds of acres of wetlands.

"Including the upgrading of 38/501, which is already a four lane road a majority of the way that parallels I-73, that could be upgraded at least from I-95 to South Carolina 22 at significantly less cost," said CCL director Nancy Cave.

Cave and others also questioned economic impact studies that say a new I-73 would create more than 22,000 jobs. Cave said those would be low-paying service jobs, and she questioned why the studies have not considered other jobs that would be lost.

"Latta, Dillon, Galivants Ferry, Marion. Their businesses, which need the tourism business they have today, if I-73 is built those businesses are gone, those jobs are gone."

Supporters of the highway defend the job figures mentioned in their studies and say those tourism-related jobs are just part of the story. "We expect to see over 7,000 jobs every year resulting from that construction," said St. Rep. Alan Clemmons of Myrtle Beach, chairman of the I-73/I-74/I-75 Corridor Association. "Those are jobs that are not in this region today.

Clemmons said the interstate connection would also save lives during an emergency evacuation. "Heaven forbid, we have a hurricane type emergency along the Grand Strand during one of our peak occupancy periods."

Clemmons said I-73 wouldn't be a financial boondoggle, as opponents claim, but an investment that, according to research done for the I-73 Association, would pay for itself in just four years. "This interstate highway is going to be a producer for South Carolina. It's going to produce revenues."

The South Carolina DOT Commission has approved bonding that would pay for building an I-73 interchange with I-95 in Dillon County.

But Cave points out that bonding still needs two more approvals at the state level. Clemmons said supporters are confident those bonds will be approved.

I-73 would extend through six states from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to Myrtle Beach.