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Challenge grants could help region improve roads

Staff Report • Jan 16, 2012 at 9:06 AM

Municipal leaders from Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol are once again asking state legislators to create “challenge grants” to allow smaller cities to jump start vital road construction projects. Although previous appeals have fallen on deaf ears in Nashville, we believe this is the year the idea will finally get the OK from the state General Assembly.

It seems like a reasonable request in a year that finds Gov. Bill Haslam promoting his own grant program to promote economic development by providing more grants to companies that invest in Tennessee. It will take infrastructure — such as improved roads — to make many of these economic development projects a success.

And why shouldn’t Johnson City or Kingsport be allowed to help put these state projects on a fast track?

Under the proposed challenge grant program, local cities and towns could accelerate key state road projects by promising to cover a share of their costs. The state’s largest cities — Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville — often gobble up huge chunks of Tennessee Department of Transportation funding on single projects, leaving nothing but crumbs for other areas of the state.

Stretching those state highway dollars would free up money to address another important project in the area — reconstruction of the Interstate 81 and Interstate 26 interchange. The current configuration of the interchange is blamed for the high number of truck accidents that seem to occur daily at the intersection of the two interstates. These accidents often create monstrous traffic jams between Johnson City and Kingsport.

Contributing local tax dollars to these projects through challenge grants would help stretch precious state highway dollars and keep important infrastructure projects on schedule.

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