Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Civil Beat Poll Reveals Success of Anti-Railers' Talking Point: ‘Rail Won’t End Traffic Congestion.’ Next Question: When Will Media Call Them on It?

George Waialeale’s photo shows a slice of Honolulu traffic life this morning during the heavy downpour. Rain always jams up traffic in Honolulu; the small photo shows H-1 traffic around 7:30 am.
The cars in Mr. Waialeale’s photo are creeping down Kaimuki Avenue from 6th Avenue. Honolulu rail won’t be a commuting option for East Honolulu residents, but we can imagine that ridership will spike on days like this as drivers become riders. By the way, the “wettest spot on earth” is Kauai's Mt. Waialeale.
Civil Beat’s Poll
It seems likely we’ll be treated to more stories on Civil Beat’s new rail poll all week. The online news outlet undoubtedly intends to extract the maximum value of its investment in a survey that already has prompted two posts here at Yes2Rail – post 1 and post 2.

Post 3 today asks when the Honolulu news media – including Civil Beat – will look beyond the poll numbers to examine why the public believes what it believes.

Today’s Civil Beat headline continues the theme: Civil Beat Poll – Honolulu Rail Authority Hasn’t Won Voters’ Confidence

Not to belabor the points we made in yesterday’s posts, but the poll did only survey likely voters, a decision Civil Beat defends as reasonable due to this year’s mayoral election pitting anti-rail Ben Cayetano against pro-rail Mayor Peter Carlisle and Kirk Caldwell. Nevertheless, that methodology ignored the views of transit-using non-voters who live along the line – people who actually will benefit the most from rail’s construction. (See yesterday’s posts for more.)

Today’s post is all about whether Civil Beat and other Honolulu media intend to report on why their opinion surveys have uncovered the relatively recent alleged slippage of support for rail. In other words, what has created this recent divergence from the results of opinion surveys in 2008, 2009 and 2011? And once they do that, will the media examine the messages that are driving public opinion?

The Civil Beat Interview
Cliff Slater has been rallying citizens to his anti-rail cause with one primary talking point – one that achieved unprecedented prominence in July 2010 thanks to his video interview by Civil Beat that was posted on July 12 at CB’s website.

We immediately posted that day and the next about Mr. Slater’s “whole argument,” as he described his main talking point in the interview. We said this argument is a cynical, dumbed-down and deliberately misleading statement about Oahu’s future traffic congestion.

Any reputable transportation expert will tell you congestion’s growth is inevitable as long as Oahu’s population increases. By implying in this pitch that rail’s purpose is to reduce congestion – that’s not it; see rail's goals – Mr. Slater says rail shouldn’t be built.

It’s a slick presentation that gets laughs in places like the Rotary Club of Honolulu a few months ago, but it obviously fails to achieve the level of an honest description of congestion’s inevitable growth. Even Mr. Slater admitted before the City Council that congestion will be worse without rail than with it.

The Unchallenged Pitch
Civil Beat editor John Temple conducted the interview and wrote about his visit with the anti-railer-in-chief:

“Slater seems to relish the ironies he sees in this fight. He seems to get the greatest pleasure from the fact that the city has had to admit that traffic congestion will worsen even with the rail project. He keeps coming back to this point. Not only doesn’t the project make financial sense, in his view, but it won’t do what people most want, and that’s reduce (sic) congestion.”
Mr. Temple accurately described what Mr. Slater says people want rail to achieve. Congestion reduction isn’t one of rail’s goals, but rail will in fact free up lane space by eliminating approximately 40,000 daily vehicle trips from our roads.

But Mr. Slater doesn't in any way mention rail’s primary purpose or greatest contribution – traffic-free travel through the city, a feature that’s impossible now and would still be missing if rail weren't built regardless of how much new concrete Mr. Slater wants poured for his toll road preference.

Mr. Temple did not challenge Mr. Slater on this point during the July 2010 interview, and neither have his reporters or any other reporters in town since then.

Why It Matters
Mr. Cayetano is running for mayor on an anti-rail platform with Mr. Slater’s #1 talking point as its primary plank. We suggested in our email exchange with Mr. Temple yesterday that the media are giving Mr. Cayetano a pass by not asking for details of what he’d propose as an alternative to Honolulu rail. Mr. Temple responded:

“I agree with you about questioning his transportation plan, but based on what I see I’m not sure it’s going to matter if it’s not thought through. There’s a swelling sentiment against rail.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s not thought through? It doesn't matter that the candidate wants to throw out rail without something to replace it? The reason there’s allegedly a swelling anti-rail sentiment is precisely because Messrs. Slater and Cayetaon have successfully spun their anti-rail talking point – that congestion will continue to grow with rail.The candidate is selling that spin but isn't willing to tell us what he'd do instead of rail, and that doesn't matter?

We obviously don’t agree with Civil Beat’s editor about the candidate’s transportation plan not mattering. Nearly seven weeks into his campaign, Mr. Cayetano has provided no detailed description of what he’d try to implement if he were to successfully kill rail – along with the traffic-free travel option and the jobs rail would provide.

This obviously matters. The media have an obligation to be more than a unfiltered pipeline for campaign rhetoric, and it’s past time for reporters to start digging into that rhetoric.

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