Monday, March 12, 2012

Conditions Favor Rail as Debate Intensifies: Media Coverage Will Increase on Candidates, including ‘No-Plan’ Ben; Survey Quality Will Be Better, too

Hawaii’s Primary Election on August 11 will be five months from yesterday, which means supporters of the Honolulu rail project have that much time to ensure at least one pro-rail mayoral candidate moves on to the General election three months later.

We think the rail project is much stronger today than conventional wisdom would suggest for these five reasons:

1) The two major pro-rail candidates – Mayor Peter Carlisle and former managing director Kirk Caldwell – haven’t even begun their campaigns. They’ll use these five months to make rail’s case stronger than ever before.
2) Anti-rail candidate Ben Cayetano will be revealed to have no transportation plan that would give commuters what rail will deliver – fast, frequent, reliable and safe congestion-free travel through the city.
3) The media eventually will step up to their “Fourth Estate” responsibilities and peel away the layers of deceit in the anti-rail campaign.
4) New public opinion surveys on rail will be crafted and timed better than the two media polls that already have been taken this year.
5) A revived sense of “community” will lead Oahu residents to conclude rail must be built as an alternative to highway congestion in the east-west corridor.

Pro-Railers' Campaigns
Anti-rail candidate Ben Cayetano officially launched his campaign on January 19. Despite their own efforts so far, the two pro-rail candidates have had a fraction of the coverage enjoyed by Mr. Cayetano these past several weeks.

That won’t last. Simple math suggests that if Messrs. Carlisle and Caldwell conduct effective campaigns, they could generate twice as much media coverage as Mr. Cayetano, with this caveat: The media flock to controversy and negativity. By opposing a big government project, Mr. Cayetano will unleash colorful sound bite after sound bite, so the pro-railers will need their A Game when speaking about rail.

Paid media advertising will be as critical as ever in this race, of course. If the candidates manage to attract relatively equal contribution totals, it’s conceivable the pro-rail spending will exceed Mr. Cayetano’s. But this a rail blog, not a political blog, so we’ll leave this to the pundits.

Candidate Cayetano
It’s now 53 DAYS since Mr. Cayetano’s campaign announcement, and he still hasn’t detailed a plan to improve transportation through our city to replace rail, which he has vowed to kill.

All we’ve heard and read so far are snippets of ideas about a preference for bus rapid transit, a concept rejected by the community a decade ago. Even Mr. Cayetano’s brain trust – Cliff Slater – worked hard to defeat that concept, although he speaks favorably about BRT now that rail is so close to realization.

Mr. Cayetano also has alluded to express lanes and toll roads, but that’s as far as it goes. If you can find 20 words strung together about what he’d create instead of rail, please point us in that direction.

The Media Factor
Reporters should be asking for these details, of course, but they’ve shown a remarkable lack of enterprise so far. That also presumably won’t last once editors and reporters wake up to their responsibility to question the candidate on his “plan,” whatever it is.

But what’s the reason for the media’s lack of interest in the magic bullet that Mr. Cayetano is hiding? Are they intimidated by his semi-celebrity status? Don’t they see the story they’re missing?

We’ve said it before: The trio of celebrated journalists who directed media coverage in this town for decades – George Chaplin at the Advertiser, Hobe Duncan at the Star-Bulletin and Bob Sevey at KGMB-TV – wouldn’t have tolerated Candidate Cayetano’s silence on what he’d do instead of rail.

And it’s not just Mr. Cayetano. Mr. Slater seems to be the author of just about everything the candidate has said about rail so far, and that’s probably going to continue. The media therefore have an obligation to dig deeper than ever into Mr. Slater’s rhetoric.

His “future congestion issue” in particular – “congestion will be worse in the future with rail than it is today” – is ripe for peeling. Of course it will get worse as the population grows; rail’s purpose is to improve mobility within the community, not eliminate congestion. That’s how it works in cities all over the world. Mr. Slater is getting away with murder with this argument, and the victim is common sense.

Better Polling
The two rail-related polls conducted so far this year left a false impression that rail has lost the support of a majority of Oahu residents. Three scientific opinion surveys conducted in 2008, 2009 and 2011 averaged about 58 percent support for rail, so the two 2012 polls deserve scrutiny.

The Star-Advertiser/Hawaii News Now survey’s January timing was suspect from the start. It began only seven days after Mr. Cayetano officially announced his anti-rail campaign for mayor. With his media coverage dominating the news during the two-week polling period, the results simply can’t be taken seriously. Also problematic was a survey question that could have caused some respondents to wonder about the timing for the project to “proceed."

The Civil Beat poll that dominated its online reporting last week had issues of its own. The poll reported only on what likely voters think about rail, excluding those who indicated they aren’t likely to vote in the upcoming election. Sampling only voters may make sense in the mayoral horse race, but by excluding nearly half of the population, it failed to engage a representative sample of the entire community on rail.

The other problem with Civil Beat’s survey is that it had some characteristics of a “push poll.” The survey “pushed” only concerns about rail to the respondents and had not one word in it about rail’s considerable benefits, including traffic-free travel through the community.

We’ll have to see if our suggestion goes anywhere to include both rail proponents and opponents in the crafting of future media polls. Doing so could identify problems within a survey before it's conducted, thereby reducing the potential for erroneous conclusions that in turn drive public opinion.

Sensible Citizens
Just like they approach Christmas shopping, most citizens pay closer attention to major campaign issues as an election nears. Media coverage will increase, the candidates’ visibility will do the same and the public will have more information about rail than ever to reach personal conclusions about the project’s worth.

We believe pro-rail messages will resonate more deeply than a campaign built on negativity. Among the positives will be the “community spirit” message that will influence a majority of the electorate to support rail as a rational response to the intolerable highway congestion that even opponents acknowledge.

The west-siders' message is simple: The H-3 freeway was built to benefit  windward residents, and East Honolulu residents benefited from improvements to Kalanianaole Highway. “It’s our turn now,” west side residents say, and most citizens will respond to it.

Mr. Slater’s dumbed-down “future congestion issue” will be seen for what it is. By August, our population will have been exposed to enough information to allow common sense to kick in. Elevated rail – not toll roads and more buses on streets and highways – will give riders their first ever congestion-free commute.

Not everyone will ride, but those who do will become outspoken proponents for rail’s expansion. Of course, that depends on what happens in the next five months.

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