For several years now, local municipal leaders have asked state legislators to approve a new state grant process that would allow smaller cities to jump-start vital road construction projects. Although the idea of these so-called “challenge grants” have gotten nowhere in Nashville, it remains a concept of merit. And it might just be the best idea members of the state General Assembly will hear next year for stretching the state’s limited road-building dollars.
It is definitely an idea that compliments Gov. Bill Haslam’s efforts to lure companies to Tennessee. To do that, the state must improve its infrastructure. Improved roads is at the top of the list of things needed to fuel economic development.
But how should the state go about prioritizing where highway construction dollars are spent? 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 many important projects in our area. One project we would like to see pursued is adding lanes to Interstate 26 in Johnson City. The interstate’s current configuration is woefully inadequate to carry the growing number of vehicles that travel through the city daily.
Contributing municipal tax dollars to local projects through challenge grants would help stretch precious state highway dollars and keep important infrastructure projects on schedule. It is an idea whose time has come.