By Paul Gable
Since the City of Myrtle Beach killed a funding source for Interstate 73 with the hospitality fee lawsuit against Horry County, the cabal that stands to benefit from construction of the road has been attempting to keep the project alive.
In the last two years of his tenure as county chairman, Mark Lazarus led council to remove the sunset provision in the county’s hospitality fee ordinance. Then, Lazarus convinced council to approve a financial participation agreement with the S. C. Department of Transportation to provide dedicated funding for the interstate project.
Lazarus’ entire scheme to provide county funding for construction of I-73 blew up with the hospitality fee lawsuit and recent settlement.
Congressman Tom Rice, and state Reps. Heather Crawford and Russell Fry and former Rep. Alan Clemmons didn’t even get as far as Lazarus in securing funding for construction of Interstate 73 despite constantly proclaiming the project a major priority.
The most successful representative in obtaining funds for I-73 was former SC 1st Congressional District Rep. Henry Brown in the days when Horry County was part of that district. During his 10 years in Washington, Brown managed to secure approximately $83 million total for the road. Brown served in Congress from Jan. 2001 to Jan. 2011.
According to sources familiar with the project, SCDOT is currently spending the last of the Brown secured funding to purchase rights of way in the Mullins area.
Rice has demonstrated no ability to secure federal funding to move the I-73 project forward. Neither have Fry, Crawford and previously Clemmons at the state level.
Grand Strand Daily has learned that a recent private meeting was held after Gov. Henry McMaster made an address to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. The meeting included McMaster, Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune, North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley and Horry County Council member Dennis DiSabato. The meeting reportedly discussed providing some state funding, with local matching funds, to keep the project alive.
It is interesting that McMaster chose to meet with Bethune and Hatley, the two mayors who played the largest part in eliminating I-73 funding from hospitality fee revenue, as well as DiSabato who will struggle to get seven votes among council members for the proposal. One wonders, where was Horry County Council member Johnny Vaught when this meeting occurred. Vaught was attached at the hip to Lazarus with attempting to provide dedicated annual funding for I-73 from hospitality fee revenue.
Recently, Horry County received notice from SCDOT that the state department would provide $500,000 per year for the next three years if the county and cities would provide an equal match. For a project that was estimated several years ago to cost $1.2 billion to complete construction of I-73 from Horry County to I-95 in Dillon, $1.5 million from the state over three years can’t even be considered a drop in the bucket. With the application of a local match for a total of $1 million per year, it would take 1,200 years to collect the funds to meet the current estimated construction price.
However, this extremely minimal commitment of funds demonstrates just how desperate some local and state politicians are to give the appearance that the I-73 project remains viable. Some of the major donors to these politicians’ campaigns are included in the local cabal of behind the scenes players who believe they will benefit financially if the I-73 project goes forward.
Meanwhile, state representatives William Bailey and Kevin Hardee are working on widening SC 9 to four lanes to Dillon and beyond. This is a project that ultimately is expected to not only extend four lanes to I-95 but also take those four lanes as far as I-85 in the Upstate.
The SC 9 project has the benefit over I-73 of increasing access to the Grand Strand on an existing road that only needs to be widened at a fraction of the cost of building the new interstate. Additionally, it has the benefit of having the support of some of the major players in the General Assembly whose districts would also benefit from widening the road.
SC 9 is gaining growing support in the General Assembly and will probably see major progress long before I-73 is more than just a wish for a few members of the cabal and the politicians they fund.