Horry County Council will begin debating a pair of proposals next week that call for funneling tens of millions of public dollars toward building I-73 and widening S.C. 90, according to county records.
The council’s administration committee on Tuesday plans to discuss one resolution that if approved could designate more than $30 million for S.C. 90 improvements, records show. A second resolution would pledge $4.2 million annually for up to 30 years for constructing the county portion of I-73. I-73 proponents view the companion proposals as a compromise aimed at shoring up support for building the interstate and signaling to state and federal lawmakers that local funding would be available for the project.
“It’s a commitment from the local governments to buy into the infrastructure project as long we’ve got the same commitment from the state and federal governments,” Horry County Councilman Dennis DiSabato said. “It’s totally contingent on the state and federal government coming up with their portions of the infrastructure.”
But getting a majority of county council to support I-73, let alone state and federal officials, won’t be a simple task. Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said this week that he won’t vote for spending local money on I-73 because he wants the federal government to pay for the road.
“I like I-73,” he said. “I’m for I-73. But Horry County can’t pay for it. Horry County cannot put one penny towards I-73 unless and until the federal government makes a commitment and the state government makes a commitment. … It can’t get done without that money. We’re talking about over a billion dollars to do this.”
Exactly how much the interstate would cost is the subject of debate. Local leaders have estimated that building the 44-mile section of I-73 from the Grand Strand to I-95 would take about $1.5 billion, but there has been no recent research on that price. In 2017, their estimate on the entire 80-mile South Carolina portion of the road to the North Carolina line was $2.4 billion (with the section from S.C. 22 to I-95 costing about $1 billion).
However, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, which opposes I-73 and unsuccessfully challenged permits for the road in federal court, has asserted the South Carolina project would take $3.8 billion to complete.
In terms of local funding, Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Horry County and state officials have discussed making a $750 million commitment to the project, with $500 million coming from the state and $250 million coming from local governments. Exactly how much each jurisdiction would contribute and the source of that funding would be up to each council.
I-73 supporters maintain the road would help the Grand Strand recruit industry and provide an additional hurricane evacuation route. The project has long been supported by business and tourism leaders.
Just this week, the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce announced a statewide phone survey of 405 voters that showed 79% of participants support I-73 and 82% of those surveyed in 7th Congressional District approve of the project.
Critics, however, maintain the interstate is unnecessary and would cause environmental harm. Some have pointed out that the county has other road needs.
TRIP, a nonprofit that conducts national transportation research, released a report this week that showed 24% of major roads in the Myrtle Beach area are rated in poor condition and another 29% are in mediocre condition.
The region's drivers lose about $745 annually due to heavy traffic, spend an additional 32 hours each year stuck in that congestion and use an additional 12 gallons of fuel because of the gridlock, according to the TRIP report.
Hospitality fees on the table
On Tuesday, county leaders will discuss pledging hospitality fee money to I-73. Hospitality fees are 1.5% levies that are collected countywide on restaurant meals, hotel stays and admission tickets.
The fees were the subject of a lawsuit brought by the city of Myrtle Beach against the county in 2019. City officials argued the fees were being collected in the city without their consent. Other municipalities backed Myrtle Beach and the legal wrangling continued until a settlement was finalized in April.
As part of that agreement, the county and the municipalities did not commit any money to I-73, but instead they opted to continue discussions about funding road projects, including the interstate. That’s because some city and town leaders wanted to address what they believed were more important projects in their jurisdictions.
For example, Loris Mayor Todd Harrelson said that while he doesn’t have any issues with building I-73, he doubts his city council would support spending any of its hospitality revenues on that project.
“I’m more in favor of the No. 9 widening and the connection to 95,” Harrelson said, referring to S.C. 9 and I-95. “I’m not against [I-73], but I’m not in favor of sending any money there.”
Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy said her city’s council hasn’t considered any contribution to I-73.
“I would venture to say that if you were to interview each member of the council, you’d likely get seven distinct sets of rationale for favoring or disfavoring the highway development,” she said in a text.
While the county isn’t asking any of the smaller municipalities to contribute to I-73, they do want to include them in the conversation because of the settlement agreement. The proposed $4.2 million annual contribution to I-73 would come from the hospitality fees collected in the unincorporated areas of Horry.
DiSabato expects the settlement agreement to be part of Tuesday’s discussion at county council’s administration committee.
“My understanding is that we have to engage some of the smaller municipalities into the conversation in order to not run afoul of what the settlement agreement on the hospitality fee litigation was,” he said. “We’re not like super close, but I think we’re going to see movement on this one way or the other by the end of October.”
If the administration committee supports the I-73 proposal, that recommendation would be sent to the full council for approval. That’s where another challenge lies.
Hurdles at all levels
Gardner, the council chairman, maintains that local governments shouldn’t pledge any money to the project.
“If the feds will step in with this great transportation bill that we hear so much about, give us $500 million, the state comes back and gives us $500 million, then I believe the council and some of the cities can work together and pay the balance,” he said, adding that he doesn’t support making a local commitment first. “Why would we? We’ve been doing that for 30 years. … You want to put pressure on the federal government? You don’t do it by conceding.”
For weeks, county council members have privately debated whether they should commit any money to I-73 while they have other pressing local road needs, specifically on S.C. 90.
As that corridor has seen an influx of residential development, residents there have pleaded with county leaders to widen and elevate the low-lying road. When Hurricane Florence covered sections of S.C. 90 in 2018, some homeowners found themselves stuck with no way to drive out.
Last week, Horry County Councilman Al Allen appointed a task force to look at ways to address the infrastructure and service needs in the S.C. 90, S.C. 905 and Conway perimeter areas.
“We may not have the funding right now, but yet we need to know what the needs are and they need to be prioritized,” Allen said. “Because if we don’t start doing something right now, we’re going to fall further behind the 8-ball.”
Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught, who chairs the council’s administration committee, said he won’t support funding the interstate until there is some money set aside for S.C. 90 improvements.
That’s why Vaught’s committee will discuss a second resolution Tuesday. That proposal calls for dedicating the excess funding from the county’s RIDE II road-building program to S.C. 90 enhancements between S.C. 22 and U.S. 501 Business.
Funded by a 1% sales tax, RIDE II has paid for projects such as the widening of S.C. 707, the extension of International Drive and improvements to Glenns Bay Road. With the last of those projects in their final stages, county officials said this week that nearly $32 million is projected to be left over from the roads program.
“That would satisfy my requirements for right now,” Vaught said, confirming that he would support the I-73 funding if the RIDE II funds go to S.C. 90. “I don’t have a problem with the $4.2 million. I think that’s reasonable.”
But like DiSabato, Vaught said the county should not spend any money on a new interstate without other commitments in place.
“We’re not going to throw $4.2 million out there and just let it sit unless we’ve got some stuff from the cities as well as from the state and the feds,” he said.
Although county officials have said the improvements for the entire S.C. 90 corridor would cost more than $500 million, Vaught said the nearly $32 million from RIDE II “would go a long way to fixing a lot of the major problems” on the road.
Specifically, Vaught wants to see work done to the low-lying stretches near Steritt Swamp, Tilly Swamp and Jones Big Swamp.
“It’ll definitely fix those three bad spots as well as do a lot of traffic improvements as far as turn lanes and intersections and that kind of thing,” he said. “Really, where the problems are, the three swamp problems, you’re not going to be talking about a lot of right-of-way expense or anything like that. The main expense will be actually doing the fill and raising the roadway through those areas.”
County council’s administration committee meets at 2 p.m. Tuesday inside the Horry County Government & Justice Center in Conway.