Horry County’s hospitality tax could generate $400 million for I-73, and Grand Strand officials hope the infusion of local money coupled with a recently approved construction permit will make the project more appealing to President Donald Trump.
On Tuesday, the same day I-73 supporters announced the project had received a key federal permit, Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus reiterated his position that the county use hospitality revenues to leverage federal dollars for the proposed interstate, which would link Myrtle Beach with I-95 and eventually reach Michigan.
“I’m very excited about that,” Lazarus said of the permit. “We’ve got skin in the game.”
The 1.5 percent tax, which county leaders recently voted to extend indefinitely, was originally created to pay for a series of road projects, including parts of S.C. 31 and S.C. 22. The tax is collected on all prepared foods, hotel admissions and attraction tickets sold in the county and generates about $38 million per year.
Before county leaders extended the tax, it was set to expire when the road debt is paid, which will likely happen in 2019.
However, county leaders must vote on how the hospitality tax money is spent, meaning Lazarus would have to persuade most of his peers to back the project.
If the council goes along with the chairman, local leaders said they will be able to make their case for federal money to President Trump, who touted his support for I-73 during campaign stops in Myrtle Beach and has proposed $1 trillion national infrastructure package.
“It’s tremendous,” U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, said of the hospitality money. “The more local participation you have, the better chance you get of having federal participation. And I’m looking at every possibility from grants to this infrastructure package to appropriations. I’ll be looking for every opportunity to get this done.”
Trump’s infrastructure plan relies heavily on private investment, and Rice said there have been discussions about funding the construction of I-73 through a public-private partnership,
“I’d rather not do a toll road,” he said. “But if that’s what it takes to get it built, I’m exploring every single alternative.”
Local leaders have focused on finding ways to fund the 44-mile section of I-73 between S.C. 22 and I-95. The price tag for that stretch is about $1 billion and the entire South Carolina portion of the road will cost $2.4 billion.
The recently approved permit, which lasts for 30 years, will allow the S.C. Department of Transportation to fill some wetlands in the South Carolina portion of the interstate in exchange for preserving a section of Gunter’s Island on the Little Pee Dee River, said Sean McBride, a spokesman for the Charleston District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued the permit.
“We’re just planning to monitor the project and the mitigation that they’ve put forward … to make sure they stick to the approved permit areas,” he said.
The interstate’s South Carolina route will impact 254 acres of wetlands and more than 4,600 feet of streams.
Rice said the permit will make I-73 more attractive to the president.
“He wants shovel-ready projects,” he said. “And guess what you have to have to be shovel ready?”
Despite the clashing in Washington over healthcare and tax reform, Rice remains optimistic about the possibility of a new federal infrastructure program.
“We need infrastructure,” he said. “Everybody wants infrastructure. The question is, ‘How do you pay for it?’ … I don’t know how all this is going to play out, but I think more people want infrastructure than don’t. I don’t think that infrastructure money is money spent throwing it down a toilet. I think infrastructure is an investment in our economy and I think it pays great returns.”