There are plans to build an interstate right through the middle of the Green Swamp.
N.C. plan may give only spur to S.C.
By Brock Vergakis
The Sun News
One of the two interstates planned to come to Myrtle Beach could terminate elsewhere, creating the possibility that the Grand Strand would be linked to it only by an interstate spur.
N.C. Gov. Mike Easley's plan is for Interstate 74 to come into South Carolina in the Little River area by connecting with a proposed extension of the Carolina Bays Parkway.
The S.C. and N.C. departments of transportation came to an agreement in February that South Carolina would extend the Carolina Bays Parkway so it could connect with I-74 in exchange for North Carolina agreeing to build a 3.7-mile section of road that would extend Interstate 73 into South Carolina.
I-73 eventually will lead to the Grand Strand by connecting it with S.C. 22.
Either interstate would be the Grand Strand's first and provide a more direct route to the coast for millions of vacationers from North Carolina, Virginia and the Midwest that feed into the state's $15 billion-a-year tourism industry.
But the agreement between the Carolinas stipulates only that the Carolina Bays Parkway connect with I-74 or a spur of I-74.
The language in the agreement is the first indication that I-74's route may change again for the first time in two years.
Easley unveiled his proposed route for I-74 in 2003 as part of a series of large-scale transportation improvements in southeastern N.C. that includes a new toll bridge over the Cape Fear River to the state port, routing I-74 through Brunswick County, N.C., toward South Carolina and extending Interstate 20 from Florence to Wilmington, N.C.
But South Carolina has shown no interest in extending I-20, which North Carolina wants because it would provide a direct route from Atlanta to the state port in Wilmington and help in hurricane evacuations for the state's largest coastal metropolitan area.
The route I-20 is designed to follow after intersecting with I-74 in Columbus County, N.C., also would make most of the current U.S. 74 an interstate between Charlotte, N.C., and Wilmington.
Now, trucks shipping goods from Charlotte can get to Charleston's port more quickly than Wilmington's.
If I-74 were to terminate somewhere other than Myrtle Beach, one possibility would be to end in Wilmington or at the future Interstate 140 bypass in Brunswick County, with U.S. 17 becoming an I-74 spur that connects with the Carolina Bays Parkway.
U.S. 17 already is planned to be upgraded to interstate standards from Shallotte, N.C., south as part of current I-74 plans.
In 2000, the N.C. DOT studied the possibility of upgrading 40 miles of U.S. 74 between Whiteville, N.C., and Wilmington to Interstate standards after concerns arose that bringing I-74 through swampland in Columbus and Brunswick counties could cause too much harm to the environment.
The current proposed route for I-74 has the interstate cutting through the Green Swamp along N.C. 211 in Brunswick County, which is home to several rare plants and animals.
The Nature Conservancy, which owns most of the Green Swamp, opposes that route.
All construction is subject to funding.
The stretch of U.S. 74 east of Whiteville that now is proposed to be part of I-20 is scheduled to be upgraded to interstate standards after 2010 but has no funding, nor does upgrading N.C. 211 to interstate standards for I-74.
U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, who represents southeastern N.C., recently announced Congressional funding to build interchanges where I-74 and N.C. 211 will meet in Columbus County.
Dean Mitchell, McIntyre's chief of staff, said he is unaware of any plans to have I-74 follow any other route than what the governor has proposed.
If I-74 were to terminate somewhere other than the Grand Strand, it wouldn't be the first time a proposed interstate route to the Grand Strand was changed.
In 1991, I-73 was designated by Congress to end in Charleston.
By 1998 the interstate was scheduled to end in Georgetown.
Maps released by the S.C. DOT this year show I-73 terminating between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach where S.C. 22 ends.
The route I-74 is taking also has undergone changes.
Before Easley introduced his plan in 2003, the road was planned to come into Brunswick County, N.C., closer to the S.C. line by following roughly along N.C. 904.
The current route has it coming in more north toward Shallotte, providing greater access to Brunswick County's beaches.
Although the agreement between the Carolinas allows for some flexibility as to where I-74 will terminate, N.C. officials say they still are focusing on the current route.
"The only route I'm aware of is the one Gov. Easley proposed in May of 2003," said Alan Pope, N.C. DOT division engineer in the Wilmington office. "At this point I'm not aware of any of that conversation."