Once Again, It’s All About How You Ask the Question
“Voters have turned against bullet train” read the headline for Ralph Vartabedian’s article gloating over the recent USC/LA Times poll showing that a majority of voters would refuse to authorize the Prop 1A bonds in a new vote. That article should be no surprise given Vartabedian’s long record of biased reporting on the project.
But as with any poll, what matters is how the question is asked. With this USC/LA Times poll, the questions asked of high speed rail were ones that may well have led respondents to draw negative conclusions about the project. Californians For High Speed Rail undertook a closer analysis of the poll and found several questions whose wording likely influenced respondents to look unfavorably on the project, questions that are not accurate reflections of the HSR project or its details:
1a. Excerpt from Poll Question 41: The total cost of the project has increased by 35 billion dollars.
1b. CA4HSR Analysis: This is a misleading statement. It takes the original constant dollar cost of approximately $33 billion and compares it with a year-of-expenditure cost of $68.4 billion from the new business plan. The original estimate’s year-of expenditure cost was approximately $42 billion. Therefore the actual apple-to-apple costs have increased by around $26 billion. Granted, that this is an increase but not nearly as much as $35 billion.
2a. Excerpt from Poll Question 41 – Some people say that voters should not be asked to go back to the ballot to vote again….. Other people say that we should put the decision to borrow 9 billion dollars for a high-speed rail project back on the ballot…and there are doubts that the high-speed train can actually turn a profit.
2b. CA4HSR Analysis: Relying on unnamed “some people” for the pro-HSR side and “other people” for the anti-HSR viewpoint, and asking the subject to endorse one of the two viewpoints is not a professional or reliable approach to a poll. Who exactly are these people and do they know what they are talking about? This methodology forces people to endorse either one potentially biased viewpoint or another.
For example let’s take the statement “…there are doubts that the high-speed train can actually turn a profit.” The question needs to be ask, who is doing the doubting? And why are they given such prominence when the experience all over the world has proven that HSR systems are consistently profitable operationally. Nonetheless, the poll goes ahead and asks a question that casts doubt on the profitability in conflict with global experience.
CA4HSR speculates that the assertion doubting profitability is likely emanating from a study called “The CHSRA Knows Their Proposed High-Speed Train Will Forever Need a Subsidy” by Enthoven et. al, the same Peninsula-based group who have claimed HSR will cost over $200 billion. The study challenges the operating costs of the project, hence the potential profitability. The data used for the Enthoven study has been identified as inaccurate by the International Union of Railways, thoroughly debunking the results (though not the fault of the authors, but incorrect nonetheless).
3a. Poll Question 44 – In terms of rail transportation, would you rather the state spend money on a statewide high speed train or improvements to rail transportation in your own area?
3b. CA4HSR Analysis: This question is clearly designed to give the impression that HSR is in competition with local rail systems. This is egregiously misleading because local rail systems will actually benefit tremendously from California HSR program because upward of $2.5 billion of Prop 1A funds will be used to upgrade commuter rail service in HSR corridors and other connecting rail transit systems. HSR funding has only bolstered local and regional rail systems and is certainly not in competition with them.
4a. Poll Question 46 – How often do you think you would use this high-speed rail line between Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area — more than once a week, once a week, once or twice a month, several times a year, hardly ever, or never?
4b. CA4HSR Analysis: While this is a valid question, the results will likely change once people understand the system better and how to incorporate it into their lives. Additionally, HSR would benefit those using highways and airports as congestion would be relieved, easing travel for everyone on all modes.
The CA4HSR analysis is compelling. The questions that were asked were full of undefended assertions and biased choices. These particular questions are clearly not useful in providing a true picture of public opinion regarding the HSR project because of their loaded nature. While it is usually good polling practice to test negative messages, the USC/LA Times poll didn’t balance that out by also testing positive messages about the HSR project, from its economic stimulus impact to its ability to help address global warming to its benefits over other forms of intrastate travel.
That means the poll’s ability to actually explain how Californians view the HSR project is at best limited. The poll should not be taken as an accurate assessment of how the public views the HSR project. If anything it should be taken as an assessment of how the public would react to unanswered criticisms of the project. I would love to see a truly neutral and informed poll of the HSR project, where respondents are read a better set of questions and not ones that seem designed to produce answers unfavorable to the project.