Here are some things that are unquestionably true:
•Tourism is essential to South Carolina’s economy, and — brace yourself, Charleston — the Grand Strand is the main engine of our state’s tourism industry. Maybe not its crown jewel, but its main engine.
•It’s dangerously difficult to get all those tourists (and residents) out of Myrtle Beach in the event of a hurricane — even more dangerous than it is to get tourists and residents out of Charleston.
•Horry County is the fastest-growing county in South Carolina, and now the state's fourth most populous, so its infrastructure understandably struggles to keep up even without all the tourists.
This, too, is unquestionably true: Building a whole new interstate highway is not the best way to get more tourists into Myrtle Beach or to get them out more quickly the next time a hurricane threatens the Grand Strand. It’s not the most cost-effective way. It’s not the most environmentally friendly way. And it’s not the quickest way.
Instead, it's the way Grand Strand officials have focused on for more than three decades now, as they dreamed of a new Interstate 73 to connect Myrtle Beach to Michigan — or at least to I-95. It’s also the way Gov. Henry McMaster has been focusing on for years — a project he has used his office to breathe life back into in much the same way he used his office to revive the should-have-been-left-for-dead I-526 extension in Charleston County.
On Monday, Mr. McMaster went to Myrtle Beach to announce that he plans to use $300 million in American Rescue Plan Act and surplus state funds as a down payment on the $1.6 billion construction project; the state would still have to come up with another $495 million after the federal COVID-19 well has run dry and the state surplus has been spent.
It’s not necessarily a bad idea to spend some of the state’s federal COVID-19 funding on roads, since that’s one-time money that can’t responsibly be used to create new programs, and it makes sense to spend some surplus state funding on major road projects, for the same reason, if we’re in a moment when the long-term savings from building now are significant enough to justify diverting money from needs that don’t have the dedicated funding source that roads do.
But that $1.6 billion figure is noteworthy, because that’s not the cost of building an interstate from Myrtle Beach to Michigan. It’s not even the cost of building an interstate to North Carolina. It’s the cost of building an “interstate” 40 miles from I-95 toward Conway.
The state Transportation Department’s plan calls for tying into S.C. 22 to extend I-73 from Aynor to the beach, but that’s a separate project. And the leg from I-95 to the N.C. line between Bennettsville and Rockingham — the part of the project that turns it into an actual interstate — well, nobody’s talking about that. Sure, we’re committed to that, I-73 backers say, before turning their gaze back to the east.
You can also find partial support all along the route, which, if it’s ever built, will be called I-74 in some areas and I-75 in others and will include a mix of new construction and upgrades to existing highways. Those upgrades would make a lot more sense in South Carolina than clearing out a whole new road bed through wetlands, forests and people's homes and businesses to construct a major highway from scratch.
A big part of the years-long debate over raising South Carolina’s lowest-in-the-nation gas tax was how much new revenue was actually needed. The Transportation Department and the business community insisted that we needed $1.5 billion a year, but tax opponents correctly noted that we could do with a lot less money if we stuck to a fix-it-first approach of repairing, upgrading and widening existing roads and bridges rather than constructing new interstates.
In fact, the Transportation Commission nearly torpedoed the entire gas-tax effort in 2015 when it once again demonstrated what lousy judgment it had by trying to revive its dream of constructing a $105 million interchange to nowhere, from I-95 to the nonexistent I-73. (That would be the first phase of the I-73 project if Mr. McMaster's plan goes through.)
The Legislature ended up voting in 2017 to raise the gas tax enough to generate $630 million a year, which was about $370 million less than the Transportation Department finally acknowledged would cover the cost of repairing, preserving and modernizing the existing road system.
Mr. McMaster vetoed the bill (the Legislature quickly overrode his veto) that did not include enough money for any new interstates. Yet just four years later, he’s South Carolina's top build-new-interstates cheerleader.
Fortunately, the Legislature has to approve any I-73 funding, from federal or state funds; it shouldn’t. Instead, lawmakers should find a way to invest in upgrading existing highways to increase access to and from Myrtle Beach.
That's an important part of our state with significant needs. We just need to meet them in the way that makes the most sense.