After nearly two months of waiting, some of the backup data for the California High Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) survey of public opinion was finally released by the Authority, and turns out we didn’t have the whole story. Contrary to the theme of the Authority’s press release, the data itself reveals that high-speed rail project is NOT a priority for the majority of Californians. Only 21% out of the 1206 people surveyed said it’s a high priority; the remaining were either medium supporters or low supporters. Even among the subset of respondents deemed “CHSR Favorables”, only 35% rated the project a high priority.
And what about those surveyed who said high-speed rail will be their long distance transportation choice when it becomes available – surely they’d want the project built soon. Only 30% of these future HSR travelers rated the project a high priority.
The survey was conducted May 11th through May 18th and released July 11, just prior to CEO Roelef van Ark’s trip to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), no doubt to show the state’s widespread support for the project, as he made his case to the Feds for more stimulus funds to be granted to California.
Interestingly, it appears the survey wasn’t designed just to measure support of the High Speed Rail project; it was designed to test different messaging techniques for future advertising campaigns. In fact the documents sent are labeled “Messaging Survey.” Mission: Learn how to win people over: what to say, who to say it to, where to say it.
Let’s look at the statistic the CHSRA likes to quote the most: 76% of those polled said that they would like to see the train built. This number is composed of 34% want to see it move forward as quickly as possible, an additional 42% who said they would like to see the train built despite some concerns over cost and timing. Fewer than one voter in five (13%) indicated opposition to the project: See Research Memo http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/images/chsr/20100727122830_HighSpeedRailResearch_Memo.pdf
Let’s talk human nature and examine the three choices people had in this survey on this particular question. On the extremes, they were given the choice of building the train immediately or non-support preferring the train not be built at all. The middle ground response was, “I would like to see the train built but have some concerns about the timing and the cost of the project.” Most people do not like to answer on the extremes of the spectrum and as we learned from the November 2008 vote, people love the concept of a train so if they had concerns they had no choice but to pick the middle choice and they were mixed in with the “build it right away responses” because their response said I want to see the train built.
One wonders what the results would have been if they had been offered a response choice such as: “I think we should delay building the train until concerns over the state’s economy, construction cost, lack of financing and the ridership data for the project are addressed” but they didn’t have that choice.
Remember just prior to the vote, the favorable polls never got above 61% for CHSR and the actual vote in November 2008 was 52.5% in favor, so this in fact shows support is dropping if you look at the “build it right away “ support number of 38% in this survey. If the vote were to be held today the Authority might be looking at the short end of the stick.
Wording and findings:
Bottom line, no surprise the wording is extremely slanted in the questions, how the answers are grouped and the project “education” effort. The ridership model review being conducted by UC Berkeley was in process but not yet released, although serious questions had been raised by the Senate, Auditors office and the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Here’s just one example of the kind of one sided statement, hotly contested by many, that was read to the people being surveyed:
HIGH SPEED RAIL PLANNERS SAY THE COST OF TRIP FROM SAN FRANCISCO TO LOS ANGELES FOR ONE PERSON ON THE HIGH-SPEED RAIL LINE WILL BE LESS THAN THE COST OF AN AIRPLANE FLIGHT, MUCH LESS THAN THE COST OF DRIVING, AND IT WILL BE MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY-FRIENDLY.
After this statement was read, planes and driving choices dropped to less than 50% of what they were before and suddenly 72% said HSR would be one of the preferences for long distance travel. The people could choose more than one choice they “preferred” without indicating which was first, second etc. and so the poll takers declare more than “seven out of ten said they would prefer to take the high speed rail line,” because of the way the question was worded.
So what did the High Speed Rail Authority learn from this messaging survey that cost approximately $60,000?
In the “whom do you trust most” question, or as the question asked, do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of the following organization or institution.
Who do you have a favorable opinion of?
Top of list:
Bottom of list:
High Speed Rail Authority 34%
Who do you believe?
Top of list
CA University transportation economists
Bottom of list:
CHSRA Board Members
The two month delay of getting the backup data to the survey has given us some prospective. The Authority is using what they learned and applying it to advertising and studies in an attempt to increase support from a skeptical public.You will see commercials appear from Amtrak, the most trusted transit group just resumed in September. These institutional tv commercials promote rail travel at prime news hours, am and pm on ABC. In case you missed it, there are little children playing with planes, cars, complaining about delays, cost, traffic and length of time on the road. Message they should have taken the train.
Most recently UC Irvine was commissioned to do a survey on the environmental impacts. http://californiawatch.org/watchblog/report-high-speed-train-good-for-economy-environment-4401And after it’s release, there are those questioned the results and called it a “puff piece,” http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=3714piece,
What’s the top reason people gave for wanting the project built?
- Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost sight of the fact that this is a transportation project. If its jobs people are after, $43B is an expensive way to go about creating those promised 600,000 one-year construction jobs and 450,000 permanent jobs. But you can bet that we’ll hear more of this jobs “messaging” in the future.
An alternative view: A realistic view on a Mega project’s ability to produce these results.
- Some people believed that this project will generate up to 3 billion dollars in new annual revenue, perhaps the salvation of the budget woes of California.
An alternative view: This flies in the face of logic if the funds for building the project are not nailed down and the ridership numbers do not prove that the project can be sustained without subsidy, let alone generate a profit. These points and the absence of risk management about these factors have been raised by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the State Auditor and most recently the ridership and revenue numbers challenged by UC, Transportation Institute at Berkeley. ITS Berkeley report, another prospective on the ridership numbers. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/46490
- They are concerned about taxes and the state budget.
An alternate view: With underfunding for building and overstated ridership, there is nothing but fear it will result in putting us as a state and personally at more financial risk, the interest alone on the bond funds is staggering.
Who was surveyed?
A total of 1206 people were surveyed, 806 via telephone, and an additional 400 interviews with registered voters in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno, Anaheim and even Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto which we’ll cover in a moment. Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin,Metz & Associates, ( FM3) who conducted the surveystates the results have been statistically weighted to reflect the true geographic distribution of voters across the state.
Several attempts to talk to the surveying firm have been made, but the calls have been unreturned. There are many questions about where the names of the people came from and definitions in the survey and other issues not apparent such as tagging, a legitimate survey technique to move a survey responder from one question to another set of questions. But we don’t know what the criteria was. What is the definition such as long term travelers? Why is this important? For instance if the 100 mile definition is used as Cambridge did in the ridership model, that could be a trip from the central valley to San Francisco, not central valley to LA and if the people are paying for the HSR ticket as a part of their daily commute and it’s not reimbursed by the company as it is usually done on business trips, in fact, will a person take the train everyday to work if it’s super expensive?
Rita Wespi, a co-founder of CARRD — Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, says, “Some of the city statistics look fascinating, until the sample size is known. For split questions, the sample size is half of what’s shown below:”
Participants specifically Listed by Cities
Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton (combined)
Let’s look at the very small sample pool in Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto for the major question if you support the project and would like it to move ahead as quickly as possible (25%) Would like to see the train built but have some concerns about the timing and cost of the project 50% and 21% oppose the project. They quote 75% as wanting the train to be built, gathered from 6 people.
When “paired statements were used,” this is when you ask the person to choose one which statement comes, “closest to their opinion.”They are not telling them these statements are true, only asking them which one they prefer but in fact psychologically it indoctrinates the person as to perceived benefits of the project.
For obvious reasons this particular survey cannot be used as a truly objective tool which represents the people in the state of California and how they truly feel about the High Speed Rail Project but there are some interesting even in this flawed document. http://www.calhsr.com/statewide/california-high-speed-rail-messaging-survey
Unfortunately the way the survey was designed clearly demonstrates a missed opportunity for the High Speed Rail Authority to objectively learn more about what Californians think of the project – their concerns and hopes and expectations – certainly something with more depth and insight than what message is most persuasive and which brand is most believable.
Perhaps the Legislature and the new governor should sit up and take notice about the public’s real opinion about the High Speed Rail Project — even among its supporters.
As Sacramento grapples with balancing a budget and facing cuts to valuable programs such as schools, jobs for teachers, fireman and police, care programs for children, the elderly and mentally afflicted, they would be wise to remember that the high-speed rail project is a high priority for only 21% of Californians.
Note: Rita Wespi from Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) provided data on this article.