While the state is bracing itself for a possible downgrade in its bond rating, Gov. Bill Haslam is handing out jumbo checks to fund quarter-million-dollar courthouse sidewalks, $600,000 bike trails and other such “non-traditional transportation projects.”
“Programs like this will be a lot harder to come by in the future,” Haslam said after announcing a $69,700 walkway project in Spring Hill. “Already, the amount of money we have for enhancement grants are a lot less than it was five years ago.”
The governor has lately been swinging through West and Middle Tennessee to pose for photo ops with local elected leaders as he doles out roughly $12 million in “transportation enhancement grants.” Similar announcements are expected to continue through September, according to the state Department of Transportation.
One announced Wednesday included $279,000 for a sidewalk improvement project in Chester County. Another $360,000 will help the city of Bells begin revitalizing its downtown with new sidewalks, lightpoles and landscaping. And another $600,000 will go toward a three-and-a-half-mile hiking-biking trail from Cookeville to Algood.
Something just doesn’t feel right about that in the current economic climate, says Justin Owen, executive director of the free-market Tennessee Center for Policy Research.
“At a time when our state and nation face a fiscal crunch, it appears that spending on ‘aesthetic’ and ‘cultural’ aspects of transportation is code for wasteful spending on political pet projects. Now is not the time to be spending millions of taxpayer dollars on pretty flowers and fancy lights,” he said in an e-mailed statement.
In Washington, of course, a high-stakes political debate is raging over how much deeper into debt the United States government should plunge, and what projects, programs and entitlement benefits should be shut down or scaled back to try and get the country’s fiscal house in order.
Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron, who helped Haslam hold up a gigantic check in Spring Hill for the walkway project, said he was torn.
“This will enhance the quality of life right now for $69,000 in Spring Hill, and I’m glad that they’re getting it. But in the future I think we’re going to have to re-prioritize the way we spend our money coming in from the federal government,” said Ketron, the GOP caucus chairman in the Senate.
The grants are funded entirely with federal dollars that have been flowing into the state since the transportation enhancement program’s inception in 1991. They can only be spent on “transportation enhancements” such as restoring historic facilities, bike and pedestrian trails, landscaping and other non-traditional projects, according to TDOT spokeswoman B.J. Doughty.
The state has cut more than $259 million in checks for 180 total projects since the project launched and the money is given to the state on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, said Doughty.