Study links SC 22, southern evacuation route, to build I-73

Construction of Interstate 73 is expected to ease congestion on S.C. 501.
Construction of Interstate 73 is expected to ease congestion on S.C. 501. jblackmon@thesunnews.com

Tourists could drive 85 mph down two different expressway corridors to reach Myrtle Beach under a new study to build Interstate 73 that will be considered by state transportation officials on Thursday.

The study calls for Interstate 73 to connect with Interstate 95 just north of Dillon, then run south to a two-pronged junction that splits travelers onto an improved S.C. 22 that would deliver them just north of Myrtle Beach, or onto the Southern Evacuation Lifeline (SELL) to connect tourists with the south end of the Grand Strand.

“My goal is to build it with a combination of tolls and local money,” said Mike Wooten, chairman of the S.C. Department of Transportation Commission.

The proposed tolls would cost 12.5 cents per mile on the new Interstate 73 leg to the junction, then 15 cents per mile on S.C. 22 and SELL.

Tourists would be billed in the mail for the total toll cost, while locals could buy a monthly pass at a “greatly diminished” price, Wooten said.

The tolling is estimated to raise $2.3 billion over 40 years, Wooten said.

Wooten said local funding would also be needed, which could come from an accommodation tax or through RIDE IV funding, “depending on the will of Horry County.”

$2.3 billionTolls collected

“I’m looking for a method to build the road, no matter how the funding mechanism shakes out,” Wooten said.

The southern evacuation route is expected to get its first round of funding if RIDE III is approved by voters this fall — $25 million to begin studies and right-of-way purchases for the road to extend from the Holmestown Road and S.C. 707 junction to the interstate.

The study will be publicly presented to the commissioners Thursday, and then posted on their website.

The “I-73 Intermediate Traffic and Revenue Study” conducted by C&M Associates and dated February 2016 differs from an earlier draft that was presented at a meeting held in August at the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce that included state transportation department employees, Wooten said.

The meeting was reported by The State in September as “secret,” citing an email the newspaper obtained that was written by Wooten. The email stated that he would like to keep the preliminary results “confidential” until the final report was published.

“I caught a bunch of grief for trying to hide it, but I was not trying to hide it, I was just trying to keep a bunch of false information from being out there,” Wooten said Wednesday.

That initial draft did not include the possibility of putting a toll on S.C. 22, because federal rules prohibited levying tolls on an existing road. That rule has since been changed through the efforts of Congressman Tom Rice, Wooten said.

Additional construction along S.C. 22 would be required to bring it into federal standards for an interstate system.

As for the 85 mph speed zone, Wooten pointed to a toll road in Texas that allows vehicles to run at that speed and said the same could be done for Interstate 73.

I’m looking for a method to build the road, no matter how the funding mechanism shakes out.

Mike Wooten, Transportation Commission chairman

The construction of Interstate 73 from North Carolina into Myrtle Beach is expected to boost the regional economy and relieve traffic congestion along S.C. 501.

While officials are searching for major funding sources to move forward with construction, work has been ongoing, including the pending acquisition of Gunter’s Island to mitigate the disturbance of wetlands.

Officials are holding off on pursuing a needed federal permit from the Army Corps of Engineers in the hopes that a bill pending in the state legislature will see final passage this year. Under the proposed legislation, opponents looking to object to a road project’s permit could be forced to post a 10 percent bond.

With a $1 billion price tag, that could potentially mean a $100 million bond required by a judge to file a permit protest with the Administrative Law Court.

“We’re just going to hold off on permitting,” Wooten said. “We are continuing to work on I-73 buying right-of-ways.”

“A lot of people thought I-73 was dead, but we’ve been working on it all this time,” Wooten said.

Audrey Hudson: 843-444-1765, @AudreyHudson