The five major interstate highways that crisscross South Carolina are part of its social and economic lifeblood. Since 1982, when Ronald Reagan was President, there have been plans for a sixth interstate, I-73 which would run from the North Carolina-South Carolina state line near Bennettsville through the Pee Dee to the tourist Mecca of Myrtle Beach. Over the years there have been a number of proposed routes for the new federal highway, questions about how best to pay for it, and concerns raised by environmental groups.
I-73 becoming a reality cleared a big hurdle over the summer when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally gave the go-ahead for the preferred eighty mile route. The current plan calls for it to enter the state through rural Marlboro, and Dillon Counties, where it would intersect with I-95, then through Marion County running roughly parallel to US 501. It would eventually link- up with the Conway By-Pass (SC-22) near Aynor for the final leg to North Myrtle Beach.
For most supporters of the new interstate it's a simple matter; make it easier for tourists to get to the Grand Strand.
"The Myrtle Beach area is the busiest resort destination in America without interstate access," said Brad Dean, President of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
"The road system we have today wasn't an impediment back in the '70's, 80's and early 90's, but now that we're reaching nearly 20 million visitors a year, we need a modern infrastructure system, and I-73 will help those tourists get to and from the beach more quickly," Dean also said.
Tourism spending produces an estimated $7Billion a year economic impact in the region, and those associated tax revenues benefit the entire state. Besides helping the Grand Strand beaches, supporters of I-73 cite the potential for development in the economically distressed counties of Marlboro, Dillon and Marion.
U.S. Representative Tom Rice (R-SC7) is a champion for the new interstate. "We have the Dillon Inland Port coming which will be very close to the intersection of I-73 and I-95, and the new road would cross those very poor counties. I think that infrastructure equals opportunity."
Rice is now focused on finding the funding for the new interstate and its estimated total cost of $4Billion dollars. In Horry County officials hope to use local hospitality tax money to help with the costs, and there's even talk of possible toll fees for the portion of the interstate closest to Myrtle Beach.
Not everyone is excited about a new interstate. Some feel it would disrupt some of the agricultural and environmental landscapes in the Pee Dee. The Coastal Conversation League of South Carolina is pushing an alternative plan of upgrading the existing corridor of SC-38 and US-501 from the state line to Myrtle Beach at much less cost. The Coastal Conservation League's Erin Pate said the proposed price tag is too high. "Building a brand new interstate ten miles from an existing four-lane highway just doesn't make fiscal or environmental sense."
Backers of I-73 are especially optimistic these days. While campaigning for President in Myrtle Beach in 2016 last year Donald Trump promised if elected he would make the project happen. "If I win, I will approve that so fast your head will spin," Trump said then.