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