After 26 years, two environmental impact statements, several re-evaluations, thousands of public comments and countless hours of analysis and deliberation, the South Carolina portion of Interstate 73 can now be constructed.
The project from the South Carolina Department of Transportation has gone through many phases of activity, but saw an uptick in the last year with a new proposed plan. After a year of work by the Charleston District, on June 19th, Lt. Col. Matthew Luzzatto, then-district commander, signed the Department of the Army permit saying that all environmental requirements set by the National Environmental Policy Act had been met.
There is often confusion about the Charleston District’s role in a project. The 30 year permit allows construction to begin, but the Corps of Engineers will not be working on the actual project. That role belongs to SCDOT.
"The Corps issued the permit to authorize impacts to waters of the United States associated with the project’s construction, but funding and the construction schedule are the responsibility of SCDOT," said Travis Hughes, chief of regulatory. "The Corps’ role going forward will be to ensure compliance with the permit’s terms and conditions, such as the successful completion the mitigation plan."
The Charleston District produced a Record of Decision to go along with the signed permit. The ROD documents all of the factors that were analyzed, including looking at any endangered species, historic properties, water quality impacts, general environmental effects and other public interest factors. It includes views on the probable effect of the proposed work on the public interest including conformity with the guidelines for the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States.
"We weigh the benefits which are reasonably expected to accrue from the proposal against its reasonably foreseeable detriments," said Hughes. "The decision whether to authorize a proposal are therefore determined by the outcome of this general balancing process. The decision should reflect the national concern for both protection and utilization of important resources."
SCDOT plans to mitigate for the environmental impacts associated with the project by protecting and improving an area commonly referred to as Gunter’s Island, a 6,258 acre tract of land. The plan protects 89,836 linear feet of stream including, 11 miles of river frontage along the Little Pee Dee River, and 4,618 acres of wetlands.
The proposed interstate (and thus the permitting process) has been of great interest to many of the area’s elected officials, including Rep. Tom Rice. The District kept Rice and other members of the Congressional delegation updated several times throughout the process during regular visits to Capitol Hill.
The State is still seeking funding to get started on the project that will eventually connect with other portions of highways in multiple states to form Interstate 73 and link Detroit, Mich., to Myrtle Beach. SCDOT hopes that the project will enhance connectivity of South Carolina to the rest of the nation, boost economic development opportunities and alleviate congestion issues during hurricane evacuations.