Eye on I-73
Highlighting I-73 & Myrtle Beach
- I-73 will begin in Horry County, South Carolina, and run through Marion, Dillon and Marlboro counties. Heading north, it crosses through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio and ends in Michigan.
- South Carolina’s I-73 portion will be about 80 miles and is estimated to cost $1.5 to $2 billion.
- The projected traffic count is 60,000 vehicles per day.
- Knowing that the feds will not likely fund the majority/all of the I-73 project, state and local officials had the foresight to lay some of the road groundwork for the eventuality of I-73 coming to South Carolina. Through its Road Improvement Development Effort (RIDE), Myrtle Beach began in 1998 constructing to interstate standards two roads – Veterans Highway (SC 22) and Carolina Bays Parkway (SC 31) that can eventually connect to I-73 and I-74, respectively. This was done to the tune of about $1 billion.
- The RIDE plan was funded through a “hospitality fee” on lodging and food/beverage purchases.
- Even environmentalists support the I-73 project. The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League put in writing that it would not oppose the project if I-73 connects with Highway 22 and ends in Myrtle Beach.
- Interestingly, Myrtle Beach is one of the tourist destination areas that has shown moderate growth since 9/11. Its airport, which is already handling more than twice its capacity, makes the need for an interstate even more critical since the city has limited infrastructure modes.
- During peak weeks in the summer every year, 500,000 make the trek to Myrtle Beach.
Sources: South Carolina I-73 Association; Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce; and South Carolina Department of Transportation
Myrtle Beach Area Chamber Helps Drive I-73/I-74 Corridors Construction & Issue
Every day, millions of people drive on U.S. interstates and probably take for granted the infrastructure that allows them to get to work, move goods, cross into other regions, visit faraway relatives, conduct business in other areas and get to vacation destinations. But rarely do these drivers know the backstories, the key players and the fight for federal funding and recognition that make up the vibrant and interesting histories behind how our National Highway System evolved and is still evolving.
Indeed, with every interstate, there is a narrative of which many in the general public aren’t aware. They may hear about small disputes or controversies which arise, but that is hardly the big picture. Planning, funding and building an interstate takes years and requires consensus with nearby jurisdictions and buy-in from elected officials. Also, it used to be the case that the feds provided about 90 percent of the funding for new interstates but that share has dwindled dramatically, according to Michael Covington, deputy director for executive support at the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT).
In this millennium, municipalities have to be extremely savvy when embarking on new transportation projects.
In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina – a popular vacation spot with 120 golf courses and 60 miles of beaches – Brad Dean is one of the key players who can share the narrative behind the Grand Strand’s quest to see the construction and funding of I-73 come to fruition. Myrtle Beach is one of the largest family resort destinations in the country, but it does not have an interstate that runs to it. Each year, 13 million tourists visit Myrtle Beach, with 95 percent driving there. And each year, the issue of I-73 becoming a reality looms on the horizon.
As part of the I-73/I-74 corridors project, I-73 will eventually connect Michigan and South Carolina via North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio.
“Even though tourism is the state’s number one industry and in our particular area, we are one-third of the state’s tourism economy, we simply don’t have the roads we need. We’re just now starting to build the roads we needed 15 years ago and we’re over an hour away from the nearest interstate access,” says Dean, president and chief executive officer of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber has 2,300 paying members and a $10 million budget and has been led by Dean since he was promoted from chief financial officer to CEO in 2003. Dean came to Myrtle Beach when his former employer, the Rank Organization, handpicked him to open up a Hard Rock Café in the booming city. The restaurant opened in 1995 and Dean’s introduction to the area’s transportation problems quickly began.
“One of the most vivid memories I have is that as a restaurateur the most common complaint I got daily – and I mean several times a day – was customers that would be on vacation sitting in the restaurant and would say, ‘What are you doing about your roads?’ and I would hear these horror stories [from people who would say] ‘I’ve been coming here for 20 years but I’m never going to come again.'”
Deal Me In Dean
A decade after hearing those stories and becoming impassioned about improving South Carolina’s transportation infrastructure, Dean is one of many advocates tirelessly championing for I-73 and promoting the new interstate to the media, residents, stakeholders and elected officials and their staffs.
It is impossible in this ATM Insider piece to identify everyone who has contributed to the process and the project. But Dean, nonetheless, serves as an example of how chambers of commerce spur infrastructure improvements and promote the benefit of full federal transportation funding.
“The lack of an interstate has put a stranglehold on the cash cow for the state – the Myrtle Beach tourism market – but it’s also limited us as to what we could ever hope to do in terms of economic diversification,” explains Dean.
Increasing Myrtle Beach’s tourism revenues is an obvious component in the area’s support of I-73 but Dean emphasizes other important benefits, including:
- Improved safety: I-73 would be a primary evacuation (or feeder) route in the case of a hurricane or other disaster.
- Jobs would be created: Counties outside of Myrtle Beach are economically depressed and suffering from record-number unemployment. Conservative estimates are that 50,000 new jobs, including ones in tourism and construction, will be created.
- Economic strength: An interstate promises economic diversity because it can be a catalyst for a range of industries and businesses looking to base operations nearby.
I Want My I-73
Today, through the reauthorization of the federal highway and transit legislation and advocacy for I-73 on a federal level, South Carolina has attained legislative support, congressional interest and is positioned to secure partial funding for this crucial undertaking. Advocates’ attempts to get the issue before federal decision-makers has been just as important as triggering grassroots and regional interest in I-73.
Recent history is just one tale in the narrative. More than two decades ago, Congress proposed creating I-73, but the move came sans any funding or immediate action. In the 1990’s, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) designated I-73 as a high priority.
Now, fast-forward to today: What has happened in the past few years through the work of transportation advocates and business leaders such as Dean is what provides the most vivid narrative behind I-73.
In February of this year, the SCDOT and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) – both had been stalled in their communication efforts with one another – agreed on where I-73 will enter South Carolina after the SCDOT hosted a summit for the Carolinas.
The unprecedented agreement was hailed by the press and referred to as an “interstate pact.” The summit, which was bolstered by two resolutions signed by transportation officials in each respective state, was undoubtedly a turning point, according to several sources.
Currently, the I-73/I-74 project corridors look like this: I-74 comes in at one location in North Carolina and I-73 comes in at another location in North Carolina. South of Greensboro, the two merge and from that point to Rockingham, N.C., it is I-73/I-74. South of Rockingham, it splits again and I-74 follows US 74 toward Wilmington and I-73 (via the agreement and if environmental assessments permit) enters South Carolina near Highway 38.
When the two sides eked out an agreement on where the interstate would enter one state and leave the other, the move set in motion an important stage in promoting major transportation projects. Dealing with regional roadblocks, forming coalitions and/or relying on teamwork/consensus helps when lobbying for funding and earmarks and when procuring attention in Washington, D.C.
In fact, an avid supporter of funding I-73 and reauthorizing the highway and transit bill has been Congressman Henry E. Brown Jr. (SC-01). When the U.S. House in March passed H.R. 3 – “The Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users” (TEA-LU) – Brown said: “In comparison to the previous six-year bill, H.R. 3 represents a $600 million increase in investment to highways, transit and safety program for the state of South Carolina.”
Reauthorizing the federal highway and transit legislation reinforces the corridor’s priority status and means South Carolina will be able to recommend projects such as I-73 to receive federal funding under what is called “highways of national significance,” reminds Covington.
One of the players Dean credits with helping spearhead a dialogue between the two states – along with the vital agreement – is G.R. Kindley. He was mayor of Rockingham, North Carolina, for 20 years and is vice chairman of the North Carolina Board of Transportation. Kindley says he has been lobbying for years for a designation for an interstate to run through central North Carolina and encouraged the recent decision that was made between North Carolina and South Carolina.
While Kindley knows that these kinds of transportation projects take many, many years to complete, the reward, he says, is what is put in place for the next generation. “It has been very exciting and very rewarding to work on something of this magnitude and see the fruits of your labor,” he adds.
Dean agrees but he also sees the challenges that early advocates faced.
Dean recalls being in the CEO slot for about three weeks when he went to an I-73 corridors association meeting and uncovered – for lack of a better term – a multi-fold crisis. One, three of the six states had no representation. Two, there was “no intention” on the part of any full-scale congressional or state delegation to push for earmarks or funding. Three, there was a rumor that the corridor might be redrawn to exclude South Carolina. And four, there needed to be credible people spotlighting South Carolina’s high-priority corridor regionally and nationally.
As a result of that meeting several years ago, local stakeholders knew that they had to work proactively and strategically to make I-73 more than a flash-in-the-pan. They also formed the South Carolina I-73 Association.
“What we have done in the last 18 months essentially that has worked that wasn’t done back then … is number one, there was not a regional or multi-state collaborative effort. It was local contingencies talking about their needs and hoping for funding – and I contrast that with today where the approach we’ve taken is it’s not going to get done if it’s simply for one industry or one area. We’ve got to define the need and the potential funding for every leg of that road.” Another key shift, says Dean, is that advocates no longer rely “upon letter writing and phone calls.” Instead, their fight for I-73 happens face-to-face. There have been multiple trips to the South Carolina House of Representatives and to Washington, D.C., to lobby for I-73 and possible priority funding as well as attempts to address various stakeholders’ concerns and needs.
In fact, in February of 2004, a year before the milestone agreement, 150 people from the Myrtle Beach area (business leaders, educators, environmentalists, chamber executives, local and state officials, the head of the state’s tourism office and farmers) went to D.C. to make their case in the city where politicians are the de facto keepers of fate.
“We’ve since followed up,” adds Dean. “[For instance], in the last 12 months, I know I’ve been in D.C. six times and it’s now to the point that when they see us, they don’t even ask what we’re here for. They say, ‘okay, let us tell you about the interstate project.’ I think it’s moved the project from being one of a possibility to one of a priority and the discussion is no longer if we’re going to get an interstate, it’s how and when.”
Published in the May 2005 newsletter of Americans for Transportation Mobility