A growing dispute over a new freeway to Myrtle Beach bubbled to the surface Thursday when the state Transportation Commission agreed to spend $105 million to build part of Interstate 73.
A highway commissioner and environmentalists blasted the Department of Transportation decision, saying it was made with little public input for a road that isn't needed.
"I don't believe I-73 is justified; there are other more practical routes," said DOT commissioner Sarah Nuckles, who voted against a commission resolution to spend money on the road.
Boosters of the project, to cost an estimated $2.4 billion in South Carolina. say it is vital to help coastal tourism. It would originate in Michigan and end near Myrtle Beach, the state's biggest resort. The most immediate effect would be providing an interstate highway from I-95, a major artery from the Northeast, to the northern S.C. coast.
Thursday's DOT resolution was to seek to sell bonds to finance some $290 million in road projects, including part of the money for I-73 from Interstate 95 to Horry County, the agency's Ron Patton said.
Also included in the package was about $60 million for the John Hardee Expressway in the Columbia area, said Patton, the DOT's chief engineer for planning, location and design. That project, which would link Interstate 26 to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, is badly needed to help commerce, local officials have said.
"All we did today was begin the process to look for a bonding option,'' Patton said after the meeting. The state Joint Bond Review Committee would have to sign off on the commission's decision, DOT officials said. The public also will have a chance to comment on the plan, Patton said.
Instead of building a new Interstate 73, however, critics say South Carolina should upgrade existing highways to the Grand Strand. Roads such as U.S. 501 and S.C. 9 are now mostly four-laned and link to I-95. The I-73 project has not been fully funded and the DOT still needs environmental permits for the work.
The road, as proposed, would destroy an unusually large amount of wetlands -- about 272 acres -- as it cuts through the Pee Dee region of eastern South Carolina. That has brought opposition from environmental groups, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In a March 28 letter, the EPA asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny a wetlands permit, saying an upgrade to existing roads might be preferable.
Nuckles and David Farren, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said state law requires the DOT to go by a priority list in funding road projects. But in this case, I-73 did not top the list, Farren said.
The S.C. Coastal Conservation League also criticized the decision.
DOT commissioner Ken Willingham said he backed the funding package to help economic development.