A Factually Incorrect Survey Question Needs to be Corrected
Critics say opposition to the project is at an all-time high while proponents claim support for it is at an all-time high. This contradiction was succinctly stated in Congresswoman Lofgren’s January OpEd piece (authored jointly with Congressman Costa and Congresswoman Hahn) entitled “Another View: Debate about high-speed rail should be based on facts” where she and her colleagues wrote:
“They (Denham, McCarthy, and Coupal) say that opposition to the project is at an all-time high. But recent polls show support for the project is higher now than when California voters approved funding in 2008.” [Note 1]
A staffer working in Congresswoman Lofgren’s San Jose Office confirmed that the poll cited is the Public Policy Institute of California Statewide Survey: Californians and Their Government. PPIC has conducted this poll annually in March for the past three years. The survey’s high-speed rail question asks:
“As you may know, California voters passed a $10 billion state bond in 2008 for planning and construction of a high-speed rail system from Southern California to the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. The estimated costs associated with the 800-mile high speed rail system are about $68 billion over the next 20 years. Do you favor or oppose building a high-speed rail system in California?” [Note 2]
However, this is a fictitious question. Estimated costs associated with the 800-mile high speed rail system will NOT be about $68 billion over the next 20 years. The rail authority’s recent business plans put the cost of the 520-mile segment connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles at between $68 and $80 billion [Note 3] and they have not given the public an estimate for the cost or completion date for the entire 800-mile statewide system in nearly a decade. No Californian knows how much a statewide system will cost or when it would ever be completed.
A second error in the question is the phase suggesting that Californians voted in 2008 to approve “planning and construction of a high-speed rail system from Southern California to the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.” The 800-miles of rail approved by the voters would have connected “the major metropolitan areas of San Francisco, Sacramento, through the Central Valley, into Los Angeles, Orange County, the Inland Empire (San Bernardino and Riverside Counties), and San Diego.” [Note 4] The fact that a $68 billion expenditure would still leave Sacramento and San Diego without a connection to high speed rail is totally obscured to the survey’s respondents.
In spite of wording that biases respondents to favorably answer the question, the survey’s results for the past three years are anything but favorable as the following table illustrates.
Likely Voters All Adults
Year Favor Opposed Don’t Know Favor Opposed Don’t Know
2012 43% 53% 4% 51% 45% 4% [Note 5]
2013 43% 54% 3% 48% 50% 2% [Note 6]
2014 45% 50% 5% 53% 42% 5% [Note 7]
Actual 2008 Voters 52.6% 47.4%
Likely Voters now consistently oppose the project they once approved, even when worded in a fictitiously favorable light, while All Adults vacillate in their opinion.
The Public Policy Institute of California will shortly be asking this question again in their 2015 Statewide Survey. PPIC has been notified about the errors in their survey question as have the Congressmen and Congresswomen who site the polling data. Hopefully the question will be rewritten to be factual. Something along the following lines was suggested to the PPIC.
“As you may know, California voters passed a $10 billion state bond in 2008 for planning and construction of a high-speed rail system connecting the major metropolitan areas of San Francisco, Sacramento, through the Central Valley, into Los Angeles, Orange County, the Inland Empire, and San Diego. The 2008 Official Voter Guide showed an estimated cost of $45 billion for the 800 mile high speed rail system to be spent over the next 20 years. The Rail Authority now estimates spending $68 to $80 billion on 520 miles of the system connecting the San Francisco Bay Area to the Los Angeles Basin by the year 2029 and provides no cost or completion date for the entire 800 mile statewide system. At this time no track has been constructed. Do you favor or oppose building a high-speed rail system in California?”
Polling should play a role in the formation and implementation of state policies. But to be meaningful, the survey questions need to be factually correct. Let’s hope PPIC gets it right in this year’s Statewide Survey.