HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Interstate 73 has been in the works for decades, as many people who live in the Grand Strand area know. But on Thursday, the people pushing to make I-73 more than an idea on a piece of paper said they reached a milestone in the project. They believe the permit to start construction will be in their hands mid-2016.
"Environmental impact statement is the first milestone," Mike Wooten SC DOT Commission Vice Chairman said. "Getting the permit is the second milestone. Starting construction is the third. And finishing construction is the fourth."
Step one is finished, but step two, the permit, has been tricky. The interstate will uproot more than 340 acres of wetlands, and there has to be some way to compensate for that loss. So Wooten worked for 14 months to find a way to mitigate the loss of wetlands.
The DOT's plan is to buy an area called Gunter's Island in western Horry County, and deed it to the SC Department of Natural Resources to be preserved, in exchange for the wetlands that will be affected by the I-73.
"Gunters Island is 6,800 plus acres of property," Wooten said. "It's a big tract of property. It is a very pristine piece of property. The agencies realize preserving that, instead of allowing it to be developed at some later date, has a very, very high ecologic value," according to Wooten.
Once the contract is finished, Wooten said it's just a matter of time until the permit comes through. "We believe that through this path we can have the permit for the project around mid-year next year."
Building the interstate will be a huge step toward bringing more tourists.
"Tourism could increase 5 to 10 percent because of I-73," according to Brad Dean, President of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
It will also bring more industry and what is believed to be thousands of jobs.
"Every major industry that looks to locate in our state – part of their checklist is you got to be at least 10 miles from or adjacent to an interstate highway," Wooten said. "We don't have one. So for the opportunities for the Volvo's, the BMW's, the Michelin's… those types of job-creating industry cannot possibly move here because we don't meet the criteria of their site-selection checklist."
It also has the potential to save lives, adding a crucial new hurricane route.
"A study was done a few years ago that estimated I-73 could save between 30 and 40 thousand lives during a major hurricane," Dean said.
At a cost of about a billion dollars, it's going to take a lot more funding than the around $46 million available for the project right now, even when it's permitted.
That permit is good for 25 years, which should be enough time to secure funding, but no one working on the project wants to wait that long.
"There are a lot of tools in the tool box, and we're going to try all of them," Wooten said. "There's federal money. The new federal highway bill is lying on the president's desk waiting to be signed. The house and senate have both approved it. And there is some money in that bill for projects like I-73. Roads of national and regional significance."
There's another way to pay for it: toll roads. A survey went out asking if locals want I-73, and if they'd be willing to pay tolls.
The final results aren't available yet, but Wooten says the majority of people said they're okay with paying tolls if it means I-73 finally would finally be built. He said there would also be a different price for locals and tourists to travel on toll roads.
The results of that survey will be released at the beginning of 2016.