Originally created 11/29/97

Interstate would cost $5.8 billion



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- A consultant says building Interstate 73 from the North Carolina border to Charleston could cost as much as $5.8 billion. Critics say that money could be spent better elsewhere.

"The Conway Bypass, widening Interstate 85 in the Upstate -- you name an important project in the state, and (I-73) would siphon money from it," said Jane Lareau of the Coastal Conservation League, one of several environmental and preservation groups opposing the highway.

The most expensive route the consultant considered -- building the road from Cheraw, near the North Carolina border, then through the Pee Dee swamps to Conway, Georgetown, McClellanville and Charleston -- would cost $5.8 billion. Less expensive routes would use parts of existing Interstates 95 and 26.

The totals include $400 million for a new Cooper River bridge.

"Five billion dollars for a highway we don't need, well that speaks for itself," Lareau said.

The consultant for the state Transportation Department, Wilbur Smith and Associates, identified the following other three routes:

-- Start near Cheraw and meet Interstate 95 north of Florence, follow I-95 to I-26 and end in Charleston. Cost: $1 billion.

-- Start near Cheraw, meet I-95 south of Dillon and follow it to I-26. Cost: $1 billion.

-- Follow U.S. 52 through the Pee Dee, pass between Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie and link with I-26 near Ridgeville. Cost: $2.6 billion.

Business groups in West Virginia proposed I-73 about eight years ago. They wanted to improve a dangerous highway and started pushing for an interstate from Michigan to Charleston. Other states have since joined in support.

South Carolina has spent nearly $400,000 in federal money on a feasibility study. The report should be finished early next year, Transportation Department project manager Tommy Elrod said.

But as time has passed, the opposition has grown. More than 500 people showed up at recent public hearings in Georgetown, McClellanville and Moncks Corner.

"Very few people were in favor of it," said Elrod said. But he does not think the study is a waste of time.

"We're gathering information, and our elected officials can take it and decide whether it should be pursued," he said.