Thursday, February 16, 2012

It’s Time To Blow Up the Star-Advertiser’s Rail Opinion Survey because of a Flawed Question: ‘Do You Think Work Should Proceed on Oahu’s Rail Transit System?’ Isn’t the Same as Asking ‘Do You Think the Rail Transit System Should Be Built?’

The Star-Advertiser published the results of its Honolulu rail survey last Sunday (subscription). It reported: “Support for Honolulu’s planned rail system…has sagged to less than a majority, with only 43 percent of Oahu voters now saying they believe work should continue on the project….”

If you go to the expense of commissioning a public opinion survey on a highly visible and contentious issue, you had better be absolutely certain the poll’s questions are crystal clear and impossible to misinterpret. Your poll risks being attacked and dismissed if the questions are otherwise.

The two questions in the headline above could very well produce contradictory results. The first question promotes ambiguity about what “proceed” means and about when it or some part of the “system” should proceed. The second question is a straight-forward request for an up or down answer on rail.

Rail supporters have questioned the timing of the survey; it was conducted during the first two weeks of former governor Ben Cayetano’s new campaign for mayor. The media gave considerable time and space to his anti-rail messages while providing little balance from the two pro-rail candidates. That fact alone is reason enough to be skeptical about the survey’s validity.

A Bigger Problem
We believe the poll’s greatest flaw wasn’t in the timing but in the key question, which was worded as shown in our headline: “Do you think work should proceed on Oahu’s rail transit system?”

Whoever created that question must have thought it was plain enough – proceed or don’t proceed – but it was not posed in a vacuum. Many of the 549 Oahu residents who participated in the survey must have been aware of the federal lawsuit that Mr. Cayetano and several others are pursuing to kill rail. The suit was filed last May and also has enjoyed extensive media coverage in the months since.

One of the many anti-rail statements made in recent weeks by Mr. Cayetano and his mentor, Cliff Slater, has been their demand that the city suspend any major construction on the project until after their lawsuit is decided months from now. The two have said millions of construction dollars would be wasted if the federal judge rules against the city. They’ve speculated about other uncertainties, including whether Congress will appropriate the requested funds for Honolulu rail and Mr. Cayetano’s potential victory in the mayoral race.

'No' Now, 'Yes' Later?
Asking whether “work should proceed on Oahu’s rail transit system” in light of these uncertainties might well have produced a “no” response from someone who actually supports rail – just not now, not until the unknowns are cleared away.

A far superior question would have been: “Do you think Oahu’s rail transit system should be built?” There’s no ambiguity in that question, no requirement to think about what “proceed” means and wonder in an instant about the list of uncertainties.

That question requires little thought at all, which is desirable in public opinion surveys. Pollsters just want us to give them our top-of-mind answer with no set-up, no preamble, no explanation about impacts and benefits and nothing to confuse us.

Not the First Time
The Star-Advertiser’s poll relied on a question that was not nearly as clear as it should have been. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time a local newspaper has publicized a rail survey that was flawed from the start due to the influence buried in the question.

In 2008, the Honolulu Advertiser reported (subscription) on a rail opinion survey that uncovered strong support among those surveyed. The August 27, 2008 edition of the Advertiser had the key question: “The City and County of Honolulu has approved developing a fixed-rail mass transit system as a means to reduce traffic (emphasis added).

The very next sentence in the story was Mr. Slater’s quote: “It doesn’t reduce traffic. Traffic will be far worse in the future with the train.” What Mr. Slater didn’t admit then but did two years later before the City Council is that traffic would be much worse if rail isn’t built: “We don’t disagree at all that rail will have an effect on reducing traffic congestion from what it might be if we did nothing at all,” he told Council members on July 14, 2010.

Our point in recalling the 2008 poll’s question is not to highlight Mr. Slater’s contradictory statements. It’s to point out how a poorly worded question can influence the response. In this case, the question asserted rail is being built “to reduce traffic.”

The city is not building rail primarily for that purpose – absolute reductions in traffic congestion are all but impossible as population also increases – but as a means to travel through the city completely unaffected by traffic. Rail will be the missing piece of the infrastructure that will improve mobility and reduce travel times for anyone who chooses to use it. Honolulu has no such piece today.

Mr. Slater is forever saying the public believes rail will reduce traffic, and he uses the 2008 question to back up his supposition. But that question was severely flawed in suggesting a purpose for rail that isn’t even one of the rail project's goals. Congestion certainly will be less with rail than without it, but the question misstated the project’s purpose, which is inexcusable in an opinion survey.

The Bottom Line
The recent Star-Advertiser poll differs markedly from the three previous scientific surveys that averaged about 58 percent support for rail. By playing the poll story across the top of page one beneath a 72-point headline, the paper managed to muddle up the public opinion issue. Reviewing our objections posted here this week, we’ve suggested three reasons for the alleged slippage of support the research allegedly found:

• The survey was conducted within two weeks of Mr. Cayetano’s high-visibility anti-rail campaign launch;
• The two pro-rail candidates said next to nothing in the media as a counter-weight to Mr. Cayetano’s rhetoric;
• The poll’s key question was flawed.
Rail’s support almost certainly will rebound when the media ask Mr. Cayetano for details on his transportation platform, which to date consists of vague references to San Diego's trolleys, buses and express lanes. Pro-rail candidates for mayor will surely break their silence one of these days, and one has to believe the rail project's support base is about to be energized to preserve this project and prevent yet another Cliff Slater-inspired defeat of a mass transit initiative here – elevated rail during the Fasi Administration and BRT under Mayor Harris.

Enough is enough.

This post has been added to our “aggregate” site under the Public Opinion heading.


Anonymous said...

I think its time the city needs to highlight more about future bus routes shown in Appendix D of the FEIS. Maybe even flesh it out more. I seriously doubt many folks know about the new routes, how they go further into neighborhoods than what it does now, and the higher frequency. For instance, new bus route 7 provides a peak frequency of 4 min for a bus between AMC and UH. This will blow anti-rail fear mongering comments about the inconvenience of transferring right out of the water. Even though the est cost of $5 billion goes to building the rail, the same $5 billion is what permits this reconfiguration of bus service. The public needs to know it's not a rail only project, it is a serious upgrade to the island's public transit infrastructure. Stop letting characters like Cliff, Ben, Panos, bend and twist the image of this project.

Khal said...

Does anyone seriously think Ben Cayetano needs or wants a mentor?

Doug Carlson said...

Here's a double response to the above comments:

Thanks for your insights, Anonymous. I trust your not the same Anonymous who's been posting anti-railisms recently.

To Khal I'd say, yes, he does need a mentor and that mentor is anti-railer-in-chief Cliff Slater. That's one conclusion since Mr. Cayetano seems to have said nothing about transit that wasn't previously said or written by Mr. Slater. His anti-rail campaign for mayor has offered no details on what he'd propose doing in place of exceptionally specific elevated rail transit. Vague references to buses and trolleys and express lanes don't qualify as "detailed." From his earlier comments we know Mr. Cayetano favors some kind of at-grade transit -- a concept we've taken pains in this blog to explain why it isn't as fast, frequent, reliable or as safe as elevated rail. The photographs in the right-hand column illustrate the safety issue.