Would You Like A Free Lunch?
Hey you. Yeah, you reading this blog post. Would you like a free lunch? Any kind of food, from any location, your choice.
OK, now what if I told you that you could have any kind of food from any location, but you’d have to pay $20 for it. Would you be less likely to take up the offer? Of course you would.
Today’s PPIC poll takes a very similar approach to judging two major infrastructure projects in California – a proposed water bond and high speed rail. In news that will surely surprise everybody, respondents say they’re more likely to support both projects if the cost were lower:
Voters passed a $10 billion bond in 2008 for the planning and construction of high-speed rail. Today, when read a description of the project and its $68 billion cost estimate, 43 percent of likely voters favor it and 54 percent are opposed. [Note: the poll shows that among all adults, 48% support and 50% oppose HSR at that cost estimate.] Last March, when the estimated cost was $100 billion, responses were similar (43% favor, 53% oppose). When those who are opposed are asked how they would feel if the cost were lower, overall support rises to 55 percent. Most (59%) say high-speed rail is important to the state’s quality of life and economic vitality (32% very important, 27% somewhat important).
Already reporters are taking these numbers as a sign that Californians don’t support the high speed rail project. But I think that’s an inaccurate conclusion to draw. Among all adults, support for HSR is split at the cost estimate of $68 billion. Of course support will rise if people are offered the same product at a lower cost. I’d be stunned if support dropped at a lower price point.
But the key finding here is that 59% of voters – a clear majority – see HSR as either very important or somewhat important to California’s quality of life and economic vitality. That means 6 out of 10 Californians understand support the concept of HSR and believe it is worth carrying forward. It make sense that some of them would rather the cost be cheaper – again, we’d all prefer the free lunch – but what matters most is that they understand its overall value. If voters believe a project is valuable, they’re more likely to support it regardless of cost, and cost concerns can be overcome by pointing to its benefits.
That’s exactly what happened in 2008. HSR opponents flooded the media with concerns about project costs and said that during a time of budget crisis California couldn’t afford it. 52% of voters said they still supported the HSR project anyway, voting to approve Prop 1A and the $10 billion in bond money to help build it.
That doesn’t mean that voters will support HSR regardless of price tag. But it does suggest that price alone isn’t what determines voter support. This is something that most retailers already know. Price makes a difference, yes. But if you’re on the showroom floor and you really like that car or that TV or that couch, you’re willing to pay a little extra to take it home right then and there, even if ideally you’d pay less.
Some reporters, like John Myers, believe the polling results show an “uphill battle” for HSR. I think that’s incorrect. It shows that HSR can proceed ahead just fine as long as the state takes steps to keep the costs under control. Proper construction management should be able to ensure that the project is delivered on time and on budget, without change orders or pressure for hasty construction to suit political demands.
Nothing in the PPIC poll suggests that legislators will pay any sort of political price for supporting HSR funding and construction. After all, HSR supporters did very well at the November 2012 election. And nothing in the poll suggests that HSR would die if someone somehow got the millions of dollars they needed to get an anti-HSR measure on the ballot and run a campaign to support its passage. It says that Californians, like their governor, are not conservative, they’re cheap.
The PPIC poll does have other interesting insights as it relates to transportation. 61% of all adults believe that a simple majority of the legislature should be able to put a tax on the ballot. 52% of all adults believe that voters should be able to pass local transportation taxes with a 55% yes vote.
So while I’d love for the HSR numbers to be higher, I am not worried one bit about the results here. In fact, the 59% number showing HSR as a good idea for the state is a big boost to the project and suggests it has a lot of support among California residents. And the favorable numbers for reforms to the rules regarding approval of transportation taxes suggest that the debacles we saw last fall in Alameda and Los Angeles counties, where transit measures just barely missed the 66.67% mark, might not be repeated again.