By Paul Gable
As a new push begins for local funding of the Interstate 73 project, Horry County School Board Chairman and 7th Congressional District candidate Ken Richardson has taken a novel approach on the I-73 issue.
Over the past several days, local media has highlighted I-73 propaganda statements by local politicians who, along with the special interests who fund their campaigns, search for $250 million in local government revenue to pledge to the I-73 project.
Interstate 73 has always had a top-down sales approach to voters. Special interests and their PACs, who believe they will gain financially in some way from the construction of I-73, fund the campaign chests of local politicians who then become spokespersons trying to convince voters that I-73 is actually for their (the voters) benefit.
Richardson has taken a different approach. As he travels around Horry County and the other seven counties that make up the 7th Congressional District, Richardson asks voters whether they support the construction of I-73.
“I have given over 50 speeches to groups as small as 6 to as large as 120 since I announced my challenge to Tom Rice for the Republican nomination for the 7th Congressional District,” Richardson said. “During every speech, I ask for a show of hands from those in attendance who support I-73. So far, in all those events, only one hand has been raised.”
Richardson spoke of one woman at an event in Florence. “She said to me, ‘we always hear how interstates will bring new jobs. Well, we already have two interstates in Florence and we haven’t seen 300 new jobs in the last 10 years.’”
Richardson said a common theme he hears is that local governments and the state government should fix the roads and bridges they already have in place rather than building a new road that won’t be maintained either.
The I-73 project has been a subject of discussion by special interests and the politicians they donate to for at least 30 years. It ramped up nearly 20 years ago when Brad Dean took over the reins of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
Horry County has already spent over one-half billion dollars of locally generated hospitality fee (tax) revenues building SC-22. The last approximately 22 miles of I-73 will be on SC-22 from near the 319 exit to the terminus in the Briarcliffe Acres area. SC-22 will need some upgrading on the shoulders to meet interstate highway standards.
But the remaining approximately 44 miles of highway needed to connect with I-95 in Dillon has remained largely unfunded.
Rice, the incumbent 7th District Congressman, has been unable to obtain any significant funding for I-73 in his nearly nine years in Congress.
Russell Fry, another announced 7th Congressional District candidate and I-73 supporter, has been unable to bring any state funding for I-73 in his six years in Columbia.
Fry said in announcing his campaign for Congress that the people want a representative who will fight for them. How is supporting the desire of special interests for I-73 fighting for the people?
The concept now being sold to voters is a pledge of $250 million by local governments, mainly Horry County, Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, will be taken to Columbia to ask for an additional $500 million from the state to then take the pledges of that combined $750 million to Congress to ask for the remaining funds to construct I-73 at least to I-95 in Dillon. The estimated cost of completion to Dillon currently stands at between $1.5-$2 billion dollars.
Why should local governments pledge one more dollar for Interstate 73 when over one-half billion was spent over 20 years ago to build SC-22 (the bonds were finally paid off in February 2019) until the federal and state governments up the ante from their own pockets? Why waste that local money on completing I-73 to Dillon when the maintenance and upgrading of local roads such as 501, 701, 905, 90, 544 and eliminating the flooding problem on SC-22 should be priorities dictated by the explosive growth the local area is experiencing?
For years now, local politicians have spun the story that pledging local money to I-73 will put pressure on the state and federal governments to contribute. Horry County even went so far as to eliminate the sunset clause to extend the original hospitality fee legislation to fund I-73 and signed a funding agreement for I-73 with SCDOT in the last days of the last term of former council chairman Mark Lazarus.
A lawsuit by the cities and revocation by the county of that agreement stopped putting hospitality fee money into the I-73 project.
Now county council member Dennis DiSabato, state representative Case Brittain, Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune and North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley are pushing in local media outlets for new resolutions from local governments to pledge money to I-73 for the good of the people.
When politicians are telling the people what is good for them (the people), it’s probably not. It’s really spin to promote the wishes of the special interests who fund their campaigns.
And the spin is totally backwards. If the project really will benefit a majority of the people, the federal and state governments should step up first with contributions and local governments should be asked for only a small amount from their limited resources to complete funding.
Even if I-73 gets full funding today, it will be years before the road is completed. Meanwhile, local governments have significant immediate needs on local roads and other infrastructure improvements, including public safety, that are better uses of the money than pledging it to I-73.
Richardson and Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner have said local governments should only consider more funding for I-73 when the federal and state governments have contributed significant money to the pot and local needs on other roads have been taken care of.
“If I’m fortunate enough to be elected as the next representative from the 7th Congressional District, I will represent what my constituents want,” Richardson said. “Until I see a majority of hands go up for I-73 at the events where I speak, I will not support it.”