Watching the election night returns in the new NC Senate 41 district was like watching a train bearing down on a car trapped on the tracks. You could sense the outcome before it hit even as you hoped it was not going to happen.
John Aneralla held a solid lead in early voting showing strong support among the party faithful, and as precinct after iprecinct reported their results, he held onto that lead. However, the precincts in Cornelius were holding out until the end. Then came the crunch. When the Cornelius vote finally posted, it put Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte over the top. The Aneralla campaign was not able to get off the tracks to safety.
For state taxpayers, this train analogy could be a recurring theme.
As Mayor of Cornelius, Jeff Tarte has been a strong proponent of the Red Line Regional Rail project. As candidate for state senate, he backed off his support for the project as it ran into trouble with businesses being asked to pay higher taxes and Norfolk Southern - the owner of the line. He went from being a defender of the project when transit critic Randall O'Toole came to town to not mentioning it as part of his priorities in his campaign release on transportation.
When he goes to the state senate as Senator Tarte, expect the pendulum to swing back quickly.
While the Red Line is "on hold" as project supporters attempt to address Norfolk Southerns concerns, one date that has been critical to the plan will be coming up almost immediately when the legislature reconvenes. That date is the July 1st, 2013 sunset provision for legislation allowing Special Assessment Districts for "critical" infrastructure needs. This legislation is critical to the financing plan for the project, but the extension of its sunset died in committee during the end of the last legislative session.
If the Red Line is to get back on track, this sunset provision needs to be extended. Look for Jeff Tarte to help push for that extension when he gets to the Senate. Objectively speaking, he'll be in a good position to do so as a Republican in the district which covers the heart of the Red Line project.
For state taxpayers however, it will not be a good deal. If this sunset is extended the Red Line would likely be the first user of the legislation. In fact, the only reason it is sunsetting at all is that it has not been used in five years. In a conversation I had with Mayor Tarte a few months ago, he said that he would not support a deal that put the State and taxpayers on the hook for the Red Line. However, if this sunset is extended and the Red Line uses this legislation, that's exactly what will happen. The Red Line project consultants have said repeatedly that the only way to sell the bonds issued under this legislation will be for them to have a "State backstop". That means the State would commit to loaning the project any money it needs to make payments on these bonds.
To me, that sounds like the State will then be on the hook.