Saturday, March 31, 2012

March Review: The Madness Included Rail Poll that Questioned Only Voters, Ignored the Rest; Anti-Rail Candidate’s Bus Plan Is Still a Secret

Civil Beat, the online subscription news site, posts a recurring feature each Saturday called ’10 Must Read Stories” from the week that’s winding down. It’s an innovation that only a news outlet with no space or time limitations can afford.

We’re following Civil Beat’s example today by reviewing some of March’s significant rail-related developments. One that deserves a second look was Civil Beat’s public opinion poll on the Honolulu rail project that we still believe was seriously flawed.

Civil Beat led its March 5th rail coverage with this headline: Civil Beat Poll Honolulu Voters Oppose Rail Project. But then came this opening paragraph: “The tide of public opinion is running strongly against Honolulu’s proposed rail project, according to a new Civil Beat poll.”

That was something of a shock to rail supporters in light of three previous scientific surveys that averaged 57 percent support for rail, so we wondered how the poll could come to its ebbing-tide conclusion. We found an answer in the poll’s methodology and posted about it the same day 

The survey sampled opinion only among likely voters on Oahu; non-voters' views weren't solicited. That approach may have been valid in learning which of the three major candidates was leading the race at the time, but rail will serve everyone, including the approximately one-half of the population that doesn’t regularly vote.

Non-voters’ opinions are every bit as valid on rail as voters’ opinions, especially since non-voters are statistically more likely to be dependent on transit than the more engaged, higher-educated and higher-income residents who regularly vote. And isn't government charged with serving all residents regardless of their voting patterns?

Excluding non-voters from the survey produced a result that by definition was not reflective of the population as a whole, and that’s the problem. Civil Beat Editor John Temple, who has just been named managing editor of The Washington Post, took strong exception to our view in an email exchange in which he defended his survey.
“We didn’t ‘exclude’ voters,” he said in one message, presumably meaning non-voters. “We sampled the population that will vote.” Another message said: “I wouldn’t have done (the) poll this way if I didn’t believe it would produce the most accurate reflection of what would happen at the polls if the election were held today.”
Ironically, one of the justifications to create the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (63-percent approval by the voters in 2010) was to remove the rail project from politics and the election cycle. Civil Beat’s poll did just the opposite and produced a result that clearly did not reflect the breadth of public opinion on the project.

Sampling both voters and non-voters might have produced a story with this headline: Rail’s loss of favor among voters doesn’t reflect attitudes of entire population. We just don’t know because of the poll’s methodology, but based on past polls, we think it highly unlikely rail is going out with the tide.

March’s Biggest Non-story
Civil Beat also figures in trying to discern how Mr. Cayetano, the presumed leader in the mayoral race, would address Oahu’s east-west traffic congestion if he were elected on his anti-rail platform. We had been frankly amazed at the media’s lack of push for those details, and Civil Beat was the first to step up and ask.
The candidate told Mr. Temple in an email that his plan will build on the Harris Administration’s Bus Rapid Transit plan that was developed in 2000 – a concept that was thoroughly trashed by transit critics led by current anti-railer-in-chief Cliff Slater, who called BRT a “farce” among other things.
It’s been 72 days since Mr. Cayetano officially announced he’s running for mayor, and we may have to wait another dozen or more before the candidate shares details of his recycled BRT plan. When he does, the story likely will be included in our review of April’s madness.

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