Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday Review: Civil Beat Poll Dominated the News but Left Key Questions Unanswered, e.g.: ‘How Big an Issue Is Traffic on Oahu?’ ‘Would You Ride a Train that Bypassed All Road Congestion?’

Public opinion polling is an imperfect science, but let's keep striving for perfection. We made a “radical suggestion” early this week to improve media-sponsored surveys on the Honolulu rail system because of issues with Civil Beat’s new poll that can’t be easily swept aside.

The suggestion was to involve both rail supporters and opponents in crafting the next public opinion survey and thereby hopefully identify and avoid problems within a poll’s set-up before the survey begins and those problems are in concrete.

Civil Beat’s poll on Honolulu rail had significant problems, the first being whom it surveyed. Civil Beat’s pollster – the Merriman River Group – surveyed only likely voters. Civil Beat sees that as a legitimate approach, since much of rail’s coverage involves the mayoral election that will pit anti-rail Ben Cayetano against two rail supporters, Mayor Peter Carlisle and former managing director Kirk Caldwell.

But by eliminating about half of the population from the survey (only 52 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2010 gubernatorial election), Civil Beat disregarded attitudes about rail among non-voters. Their opinions on rail are just as valid as voters’ opinions, and there’s no legitimate reason to ignore them except for Civil Beat’s preoccupation with the mayoral race. After all, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation was created in large part to remove rail from the political arena

The ‘Push’ Effect
The other significant problem is that the Merriman River Group (which has its critics) conducted a survey that has some characteristics of a “push poll,” a style condemned by the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

Civil Beat’s survey asked respondents for the level of their “concerns” about rail without mentioning any obvious benefits for those who will ride the train, such as giving train riders completely congestion-free travel through Honolulu’s urban corridor.

The national research industry group says legitimate polls usually ask about more than one candidate or mention both sides of an issue.” Civil Beat's poll excluded benefits entirely. It’s just that kind of problem that a collaborate effort among rail supporters and opponents could eliminate from the start. Since that wasn’t done, our conclusion two days ago was that Civil Beat’s poll did not provide “a legitimate and accurate representation of Oahu residents’ attitudes about the Honolulu rail project.”

Obsessive? Compulsive?
We’ve taken some flak at Civil Beat’s website from a rail opponent who says this Yes2Rail blog has “an unhealthy obsession with Cliff Slater and compulsively (posts) a myriad of photos of train wrecks. Honolulu’s current rail plan seems a distant second among your interests.”

Focused, yes, but unhealthy, obsessive and compulsive, too? Mr. Slater is more responsible than anyone for defeating attempts 10 and 20 years ago to build mass transit systems as a reasoned response to Oahu’s growing congestion problem. His influence is enormous even today – witness Mr. Cayetano’s use of Mr. Slater’s talking points to the exclusion of any messages that Mr. Cayetano himself seems to have crafted.

Mr. Cayetano officially announced his candidacy 51 days ago, and it’s no exaggeration to say he’s proposed next to nothing about what he’d back as an alternative to Honolulu rail. You’re invited to peruse his campaign website to see if you can find more than 20 words strung together that might be called a vision or workable plan to speed commuters through town.

Isn’t that what the public – and the media, most of all – should be demanding from the former governor if he’s running to kill rail after years of study and planning to build the project?

About those Wrecks at Right
It’s obvious why Yes2Rail prominently displays photographs of at-grade rail accidents in our right-hand column. Opponents of Honolulu’s elevated plan avoid talking about the safety issues of their preferred at-grade systems, and if they should stumble into that swamp, their advocacy can look embarrassingly ridiculous.

Honolulu’s elevated trains will be safe – as well as fast, frequent and reliable – by removing the potential for collisions with cars, buses, trucks and pedestrians that happen too often on at-grade systems.

We highlight the at-grade safety problem to illustrate why it can't be shoved into Honolulu's dense urban environment with its aging population. If that’s a symptom of AACD – accident adverse compulsive disorder – so be it. At this critical stage of the Honolulu rail debate, a little AACD doesn't hurt.

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