COLUMBIA -- The board that oversees the S.C. Department of Transportation on Thursday approved launching an $11.5 million project in Dillon County that critics contend represents the start of building the long-planned Interstate 73.

The vote by DOT commissioners to accept the winning bid means construction on the intersection of U.S. 301 and U.S. 501 near Latta should start within a few months. Federal money is funding all but a fraction of the cost, with state gas tax revenue covering $292,000. Commissioner Sarah Nuckles of Rock Hill argued that it represents ground being broken for I-73, and that the agency lacks the money and permits to proceed with the interstate link to Myrtle Beach.