MYRTLE BEACH — Business and political leaders from the 7th District made the most of a rare opportunity Thursday to speak directly to the chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
In little more than an hour at a meeting at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, Interstate 73 was mentioned at least two dozen times meaning that Congressman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., would be hard pressed to forget it when he gets back to his chairman’s seat in Washington.
Not that there was much chance even before the meeting as 7th District Congressman Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, gave Shuster an I-73 sticker for his lapel, which Shuster joked that he should have worn on his forehead.
The $2 billion needed to build South Carolina’s part of the interstate is just one of two significant hurdles the highway faces, Shuster said in a pre-meeting interview. The other is how the funding would get into the highway transportation bill. Shuster said that members of Congress can no longer earmark funds, but that it still happens, just by the executive branch of the government.
Congress needs to restore its earmark authority, Shuster said. Once that’s done, Rice said he could find the money to fund the construction. If that fails, Rice said, Congress could designate it as a toll road to provide the funds for construction.
“I don’t want to do it as a toll road,” Rice said. “But if that’s the only way to do it, I’ll go that way.”
Rice, Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes and Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus all told Shuster at the meeting that the road is critical not only as a way to facilitate the travel of the majority of the county’s 14 million tourists, but as an economic development tool and a route for hurricane evacuations.
“It’s hard to believe we’re the third largest tourist destination in the U.S. and we still have no way to get here other than back roads,” Rhodes said.
Shuster remarked how persistent Rice, who is a member of his committee, has been on the issue, to which Lazarus said, “I can tell you if you think Tom is persistent, wait ‘til you see the rest of us.”
Rice said that the highway’s construction would create 7,000 jobs in some of the neediest areas of South Carolina, and they would be followed by 72,000 new jobs that would come after it is built. In terms of a cost-benefit ratio, an increasingly important measure in the spending of federal funds, Rice said the new interstate would pay for itself in just over four years.
The short meeting was immediately followed by a tour of the highway’s route, areas of Grand Strand beach renourishment and a look at the new terminal at Myrtle Beach International Airport. While the interstate dominated the conversation, the importance of dredging the Georgetown port, railroads and water and sewer infrastructure in Florence also got some time during the sit-down.
Rice and Shuster stopped in Georgetown earlier in the day to talk specifically about the port and view a newly-commissioned Coast Guard vessel.
Tim Tilley, president of the Georgetown Port Task Force, said at the Myrtle Beach meeting that highways, railroads and ports work together to benefit the region.
“It’s all a symbiotic relationship,” he said.