Commentary: Why SC environmentalists still oppose ill-conceived, destructive I-73 project | Commentary

If the federal government wants to fund an expensive infrastructure project, the law requires agencies to consider whether it’s necessary and whether other alternatives are available with less impact on the health of our communities. That consideration did not happen for a proposed new Interstate 73 from I-95 in Dillon County to just east of Aynor in Horry County.

That’s why the Coastal Conservation League remains opposed to the project, and in support of considering cheaper upgrades to S.C. 38 and U.S. 501, the existing highways that a new $2 billion I-73 would run just alongside, cutting through family farms and hundreds of acres of pristine freshwater wetlands.

First, we should be clear on what this project really is. This new stretch of interstate through inland Pee Dee counties would do nothing to address traffic on the local roads of the Grand Strand, such as U.S. 501 between Conway and U.S. 17. It would connect with S.C. 22 west of Conway, which goes to North Myrtle Beach, leaving the roads of Myrtle Beach untouched. The roads it would bypass aren’t crowded and dangerous — the U.S. 501 bypass north of Marion, for example, is four lanes, with no “at grade” intersections — that is, no stoplights or stop signs. There are alternatives available to the expensive I-73 proposal.

The project would destroy pristine wetlands along the Little Pee Dee River, which means federal law requires the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a permit to ruin these natural resources. We are questioning whether the Corps made the right decision to issue these permits. There isn’t a clear need for the I-73 project, and current plans failed to consider any alternatives that would minimize and avoid wetland fill impacts. We are also asking if the Army Corps and the Federal Highway Administration complied with federal law when they failed to update a 10-year-old analysis for this project in light of changed circumstances, including the fact that the road likely will have to be tolled to meet its hefty price tag.

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But this isn’t just about natural resources. This is also about how the government funds transportation in South Carolina. Act 114, a state law from 2007, requires the state to evaluate objective criteria when planning transportation projects. The stretch of I-73 from I-95 to Aynor does not make the cut. It’s a small segment of interstate that would not connect to a national I-73. Funding this project (and requesting limited transportation funds from the Biden administration for it) would come at the expense of projects that are more urgent and would benefit our state more, such as the long list of upgrades on I-26, I-95 and other congested highways.

It’s up to groups such as the Coastal Conservation League to question how the government plans to spend more than $1 billion on an ill-advised transportation project that would cause irreversible damage to our state when better alternatives are available.

That’s why we went to court — to ensure that the federal government follows the law — and that’s why we continue this effort. While we would rather find consensus and work together to find good solutions, we take our mission of protecting the health of communities in the South Carolina coastal plain seriously.

Laura Cantral is executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.