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Let voters decide: Elected officials should put Interstate 73 on the ballot

A recent Chamber of Commerce poll showing strong support for Interstate 73 completion to Myrtle Beach has some of the project’s critics questioning the survey’s accuracy.

After all, they were never asked.

We’ll get to the details of the opinion poll in a minute.

But first, I-73 opponents have put forth an interesting question that’s worthy of exploring: Why not hold a countywide referendum to determine support among all voters?

The vote would be non-binding, but it would send a strong message to elected officials responsible for making that final decision — build, or don’t build.

Opponents strongly believe they would have the upper hand and could nip this whole project in the bud.

But as the old Chinese proverb warns, be careful what you wish for.

Granted, Horry County is heavily Republican — a party not fond of tax increases.

The notable exception is when voters know the tax will be used for a specific purpose — like this year’s property tax millage increase to pay for public safety, which had widespread support.

And, the RIDE III ballot measure that passed overwhelmingly by 86,420 to 38,601 votes.

The measure won 130 out of 131 precincts, losing only Homewood by 193 votes.

RIDE III asked voters for a 1% tax on hotels, retail, restaurants, bars and prepared food in grocery stores.

The seven-year tax is expected to raise nearly $600 million for 15 major projects, including the widening of U.S. 501 and Carolina Forest Boulevard.

It was a risky vote some officials feared might fail, because it came during the 2016 presidential election — a decidedly anti-tax year when Horry County voters were expected to elect Donald Trump in a landslide.

But it turned out Horry County residents favored Trump almost as much as they did the tax.

Trump won with 88,587 votes, just 2,167 more than RIDE III.

So how did a considerable tax hike win widespread support among Horry County voters? 

The public was given specific information upon which to make their decision; The tax percentage, items taxed, how much money it would raise, which roads were included, and most importantly, an expiration date on the tax.

The initial plans drafted by the county for Interstate 73 called for a 1.5% tax on hotels, admission tickets and prepared foods — fewer taxed items than RIDE III.

We probably spend $50 a week on prepared foods, which puts our share for the interstate at $39 a year, plus a few extra bucks for ticket admissions. 

Horry County was willing to commit a portion of those taxes to obtain matching state and federal funding for the estimated $1.2 billion interstate cost.

Now, to the poll commissioned by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce in May.

It was conducted by The Trafalgar Group, a national polling firm that made its bones after accurately predicting President Trump would win key states in the 2016 election.

Pollsters surveyed 1,774 Horry County residents asking them to describe their opinion of Interstate 73.

The results according to the Chamber of Commerce:

  • 43.8% very favorable
  • 30.8% favorable
  • 10.4% unfavorable
  • 4.6% very unfavorable
  • 10.5% no opinion

The poll’s margin of error was 2.3%.

The total results are nearly 75% in favor on the interstate and 15% against it.

Compare that to RIDE III’s win with 69% of the vote, and the interstate poll numbers don’t appear as far-fetched as some might think.

That’s not to say putting the interstate ballot to the question won’t provoke strong opposition, especially from a certain environmental group out of Charleston — a city with interstate access that has decided Horry County is not worthy of the same.

Providing detailed information voters will need to make a decision on a ballot question for the 2020 election would settle the issue for voters, and it’s an idea elected officials should consider.