By: Jimmy Gray, Director of Government Affairs
When proponents of Interstate 73 talk about our area’s need for interstate access, it’s easy to focus on the obvious economic benefits. Studies have indicated that the road will lead to the direct creation of over 29,000 jobs. As a result of improved travel efficiency, the interstate will provide $120.8 million in annual cost savings for current businesses. The interstate will also bring much needed diversification to our tourism-based economy, with more year-round jobs for residents. It will also boost our tourism industry by 7.1 percent, which translates into an additional $909.9 million direct tourism spending in the Myrtle Beach area.
It makes sense to highlight those numbers. Better access to the Myrtle Beach area and more jobs means a more predictable year-round economy and increased tax revenues for state and local governments. But too often we seem to neglect the most obvious and real-life benefit that this interstate will offer: a lifeline in the event of a hurricane or natural disaster.
Let’s go back a few months, to Tuesday, September 11, when Governor McMaster issued a mandatory evacuation order for the entire South Carolina coast. At that point, the storm wasn’t projected to make landfall for another 3 days. Myrtle Beach area residents and visitors are dependent on two roads to evacuate inland: U.S. 501 and S.C. 9. The Governor made the right call to evacuate the coast early because of the expected congestion on these two roads, but this decision also forced businesses to close for an extra 1 or 2 days during a peak tourism season. Studies have shown that the full evacuation time for the Myrtle Beach area could balloon to over 50-hours in a decade if we continue to only have two real routes for residents and visitors to evacuate. Interstate 73 will dramatically cut that evacuation time and potentially allow businesses to stay open longer. When businesses are forced to close, employees paid hourly or those dependent on tips don’t get paid.
Much credit should be given to officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, SCDOT, Horry County Government & Emergency Management Division and Conway City Government officials for keeping U.S. 501 open throughout the hurricane and the flood. Unprecedented and innovative measures were taken to maintain access inland and to be able to provide goods and materials to the Myrtle Beach area on the coast. Had water levels risen just a few inches higher, the Myrtle Beach area would have been completely cut off. S.C. 22 was forced to close due to flooding after the storm.
Opponents of I-73 are quick to point out that I-73 will tie into S.C. 22, which flooded after the storm, attempting to take the evacuation argument off the table for I-73. We already knew that improvements and upgrades needed to be made to S.C. 22 to bring the road up to interstate standards to become a part of I-73. Current engineering methods will allow for I-73 to withstand severe flooding, which includes S.C. 22.
We don’t need to speculate in order to make arguments that I-73 will help save lives. Atkins North America studied I-73 for evacuation purposes. According to their study, I-73 will provide 12 plus hours of clearance time for residents and visitors in the Myrtle Beach area. This time would give roughly 90,000 people the time to escape who would otherwise be trapped in the area in the event of a hurricane.
Hurricane Florence was a devastating and eye-opening experience for the entire Grand Strand. After the hurricane made landfall north of our area, many in the national media opined that we were spared from Florence’s wrath. The real devastation from Florence came days and weeks after the Hurricane as homeowners and business owners dealt with severe flooding. Those that had evacuated the Grand Strand faced mind-numbing travel times for reentry. If U.S. 501 had closed, there would have been no way for residents to get back to houses to survey the damage.
All the credit in the world should be given to the aforementioned officials that worked around the clock to keep U.S. 501 open. Had they been unsuccessful, Florence’s destruction would have been much worse. As our community heals from this tragic event we should also take an opportunity to look towards the future and our existing infrastructure to evaluate whether or not we would be safe if another Hurricane came a week after Florence. Congressman Tom Rice did just that, which is why he requested that disaster relief funding for our area include funding to complete I-73 in South Carolina.
The crippling effects of Florence show us exactly why we need Interstate 73. The economic and diversification benefits of this interstate deserve to be highlighted, but its role in the evacuation process will save lives and help prevent further destruction.