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Faulty Transit Poll Fails To Direct Region

Last week “ Raleigh-Cary” was ranked as the fastest growing area of the country . Great! Now what? As a region we have to decide where these people are going to live. Do we want to be a gridlocked region where it is difficult to move about? Do we want to spend our transportation dollars wisely? Is there a new growth model that should be used? Many, many questions need to be answered.

The answers to some questions were released this week by the Regional Transportation Alliance (Warning: autostart Video). The group is a collection of business leaders and chambers of commerce that has a stated goal of improving transit in the region, however their behaviors in the past demonstrate a distinct bias toward high-capacity train transit.

While this poll (.pdf) isn’t as blatantly biased as previous polls centered on the transit subject in the area, the poll clearly has massive flaws. The Alliance’s press release (.pdf), which pushes only the data that conforms to the agenda, doesn’t help in building the trust of the general public.

The survey was conducted in early March and contains 20 questions. I’ll dissect each one:

Q. 1. Generally speaking, would you say that your community is going in the right direction, or has it gotten off onto the wrong track?
69.9% Right direction
17.3 Wrong track
4.2 Mixed/both (volunteered)
8.7 Unsure/no answer

What is the purpose of this vague question? If 70% of those surveyed feel that we are “on the right track”, and one in six feel we are on the wrong track, is there really the mandate reported for a massive infrastructure expenditure that will benefit less than one half of a percent of the region’s population?

Q. 2. What do you think should be the top priority for local elected officials to work on right
now? Do you think it is…  (randomly rotated)
28.2% Improving the quality of public education
28.5 Attracting more businesses and jobs to the area
3.3 Reducing traffic congestion
8 Preventing home foreclosures
8.7 Expanding public transportation systems
16.4 Lowering taxes
4.8 Other (volunteered)
2 Unsure/no answer

This is the weakest question on the survey because it only asks about the “top” priority of citizens. Only 3% of those surveyed feel that traffic congestion is the top priority. The question doesn’t ask what should be the second priority, nor does it reflect any of the relative weights of the options given. Additionally, two items are closely correlated: Reducing traffic congestion and expanding public transit. Each, mind you, scores quite low compared to improving education, expanding the tax base, and lowering the tax rate. “Other” is a weak exclusionary option because it doesn’t remind people of other municipal priorities such as Public Safety (crime), Health Care, and Retirement Security.

Q. 3. Based on what you may have heard, read or know about the proposed law to allow
Durham, Orange and Wake Counties to ask voters for approval to levy a sales tax of one-half
percent for public transportation, do you favor or oppose it? Follow-up: Would you say that
you strongly favor/oppose it, or just somewhat favor/oppose it?
TOTAL FAVOR=49.1% (20.2% Strongly favor, 28.9 Somewhat favor)
TOTAL OPPOSE=42.1% (15.8% Somewhat oppose, 26.3 Strongly oppose)

By a slight margin, those surveyed feel that taxing purchases is the way to go for paying for a transit system. (Interesting that many more people strongly oppose than strongly favor). These numbers are close and once again do not support the tone reflected in the Association’s press release.

Q 4. If the legislator that represents your area votes in the favor of the proposed law, would you be more or less likely to re-elect him or her, or would it make no difference in your decision?
18.9% More likely
20.2 Less likely
55.7 No difference
5.1 Unsure/no answer

This is a throw-away question which teaches us very little about the repercussions to those holding office.

Q. 5. Which of the following would you say is the biggest benefit from new or expanded public transportation? Is it… (randomly rotated)
33.1% Less traffic congestion
26.5 Better air quality and environmental preservation
9.2 Lower commuting costs
13.3 Greater convenience
9 Ability to travel to more destinations
1.5 Other (volunteered)
3 No benefit (volunteered)
4.5 Unsure/no answer

Here is another superlative question which doesn’t reflect relative importance of the items. People seem to feel that traffic congestion and air quality are the two issues improved most by a transit system. However these two items are far from being considered “top priority” by voters. Beware, however, of conclusions based on this question. Atlanta has a high-occupancy train system running alongside a congested interstate highway. In every case of a local train in America, a clogged highway nearby can be found. Plenty of evidence exists proving that trains do not mitigate car congestion. Second, there is an underlying assumption that private transportation vehicles cannot be greatly improved. If all cars were electric, for example, wouldn’t air quality be greatly improved?

You really have to wonder about those who answered “Ability to travel to more destinations”. Will a train reach places a car cannot? Convenience is another strange pick for anyone who doesn’t live and work near rail stations. (In most cases commuting times to RTP jobs for people using large occupancy rail transit will increase from the current situation anywhere from 33% to 50%)

Q. 6. Which of the following would you say is the biggest drawback from new or expanded
public transportation? Is it… (randomly rotated)
6.8% Less money to spend on roads
21.8 Higher taxes
14.9 Low ridership
24.9 It takes a long time to implement
25.6 It probably will not benefit you
.7 Other (volunteered)
1.8 No drawback (volunteered)
3.6 Unsure/no answer

Once again, here is a question asking about superlatives. The TTA’s estimates sent to Washington in their application for funding a couple of years ago showed anticipated ridership on a regional rail system at 14,000 per day. Assuming 99% of those are two-way trips, we are really estimating that 7,000 out of 1,527,705 ( via ), or 0.49% of the population is expected to use the system. While 99.51% will not use the system, only 26% reported that it “probably” won’t benefit them. Discrepancies like this indicate a poor question or a lack of understanding of the issue by the public.

Q. 7. Which of the following routes do you think should be the highest priority for a new or
expanded public transportation system? Is it… (randomly rotated)
28.1% Traveling to and from the Research Triangle Park area
13.1 Traveling to and from the Raleigh Durham Airport
10.8 Traveling to and from the Raleigh downtown area
26.3 Traveling between Durham, Orange and Wake Counties
14.3 Traveling within the county where you live
.9 Other (volunteered)
1.9 No priority (volunteered)
4.7 Unsure/no answer

Here is another superlative question. Just because 87% of those responding did not choose RDU does not mean that they don’t feel RDU would be an important stop. (The current TTA rail plan shows a stop near the airport which would require a short bus shuttle ride to complete the trip to RDU). RTP and intercounty travel were the top answers, yet there are no follow-up questions that relate to time of travel, maximum tolerable travel mode changes (car to rail to bus), privacy, or flexibility.

Q. 8. Do you favor or oppose a light rail transit train system for commuters? Follow-up: Would you say that you strongly favor/oppose it, or just somewhat favor/oppose it?
TOTAL FAVOR 45.1% Strongly favor
74.5% 29.4 Somewhat favor
TOTAL OPPOSE 6.9% Somewhat oppose
20.3% 13.4 Strongly oppose
5.2% Unsure/no answer

Would you favor more water in your glass? Do you favor having a Mercedes? Do you favor having an NFL team in a downtown stadium? Do you favor flying cars? All of these can be yours! This question is truly absurd. It is difficult to ascertain how many of the 75% simply are saying they simply like rail transit vs. those who say we need to spend whatever it takes to have it. The opposition is hard to read, too. Are 20% totally against rail transit for the region or just their own lifestyles? Did they answer this in light of the current plan and/or the costs associated? If you favor a heavy rail system (like the current one proposed OR something like Metro in Washington OR an elevated monorail), you must answer “no” here because the question addresses “light rail” only. The only thing I can take away from this question is that the general public generally likes trains. Bad question.

Q. 9. Do you favor or oppose more buses and bus routes? Follow-up: Would you say that you
strongly favor/oppose it, or just somewhat favor/oppose it?
TOTAL FAVOR 35.1% Strongly favor
67.2% 32.1 Somewhat favor
TOTAL OPPOSE 14.9% Somewhat oppose
25% 10.1 Strongly oppose
7.7% Unsure/no answer

Following the answer in Q8 I add this: Do we favor more bus routes? Seriously 25% of people said “no”? What if they were free? What if fares were raised to self-sustain the system? What if the whole system were fare free with taxpayers footing the bill? The question, once again, is too vague and the answers tell us nothing. The question is framed against the option of having fewer bus routes, which makes the 25% (Strongly oppose) number absurd enough to be headline news.

Q. 10. Do you favor or oppose a combined system of light rail trains for major destinations and connector buses to individual neighborhoods? Follow-up: Would you say that you strongly favor/oppose it, or just somewhat favor/oppose it?
TOTAL FAVOR 43.9% Strongly favor
74.9% 31 Somewhat favor
TOTAL OPPOSE 8.8% Somewhat oppose
20.7% 11.9 Strongly oppose

Once again, against what are we asking? It says “light rail”, so those who have studied transit, who support the current TTA proposal must answer “OPPOSE”. Also, the question does not consider the costs. Nobody buys items without considering the costs. This is the definition of value. Once again, I’d like more water, an extra room on the house, and NFL team, and while you’re at it, throw in a Ferris Wheel for Pullen Park. Who is paying and how much? What are “major destinations”? I would say that RDU, The Smith Center, Kenan Stadium, The RBC Center/Carter-Finley Stadium, Crabtree, Southpoint, North Hills, Rex Hospital are all major destinations. None are included in any rail plans to date. These destinations are accessible by current bus routes.

Q. 11. Do you favor or oppose dedicating an existing lane on streets in downtown areas so that they could be used for a system of buses or electric streets cars that would run on regular schedules without being delayed by car traffic? Follow-up: Would you say that you strongly favor/oppose it, or just somewhat favor/oppose it?
TOTAL FAVOR 34% Strongly favor
66.7% 32.7 Somewhat favor
TOTAL OPPOSE 11.7% Somewhat oppose
27.8% 16.1 Strongly oppose
5.5% Unsure/no answer

This is the first time we’ve seen the concept of (commonly violated) dedicated bus lanes floated in the area. Good to see it. Wow, 1 out of 6 hate the idea.

Q. 12. Would you vote for or against a property tax increase that would amount to $ [$38 for
Durham County/$23 for Orange County /$27 for Wake County] for each $100,000 of property
value to pay for new or expanded public transportation, if one was on the ballot in your county?
39.2% For
56.9 Against
3.8 Unsure/no answer

Ooops! Here we go. You mean we have to pay for this? $75-$125 a year for something I might not ride (and failed to report that fact earlier in this survey when they asked about how much I like trains). Dollars are something I know.

Q. 13. Would you vote for or against a 30-year general obligation bond issue of $ [$300 for
Durham County/$100 for Orange County/$600 for Wake County] million dollars to pay for new or expanded public transportation, if one was on the ballot in your county?
49.8% For
38.7 Against
11.5 Unsure/no answer

Here we go with the popular option: bonds. Don’t worry. Even if more than 50% of the people oppose a bond for a public project, our elected officials will come and hold a gun to our heads and make us by the product anyway. That’s why we have such a nice convention center. Half of the people support a bond issue. Isn’t financing things we can’t pay for down the road what got us into this current economic climate? Nevermind. Someone else is paying for it, so let’s do it.

Q. 14a. Would you vote for or against a sale tax increase of one-quarter of a percent to pay for new or expanded public transportation, if one was on the ballot in your county?
57.9% For – skipped next question
38.1 Against
4 Unsure/no answer – skipped next question

This is a almost a repeat of question #3, which asked about a 0.5% increase (tax won 49% to 42%). Now, after working the respondent over and greasing them to think about transit and the possibility of paying an exact dollar amount, the survey asks the question proposing a 0.25% increase, and gets a number the Alliance can take to the media. (You didn’t really think that the difference was simply .25% vs .5%, did you?)

That said, if a family spends about $40,000 per year, then they will see an additional $100 in taxes to pay for transit. Sounds like Joe Q Public knows dollars, but doesn’t know cents. Second, a sales tax puts more burden on the poor than a property tax does.

Q. 15. What is the biggest reason that you would vote against the sales tax? n=396
47.1% Taxes are already too high/against increased taxes
13.3 Timing is poor due to economic crisis
11 Non-riders should not have to pay/I won’t use it
6.2 Do not trust government to tax and spend responsibly
5.6 Would not get enough use/no need
5.3 Money could be better used on other projects
4.2 Tax increase is not necessary/money should be allocated from existing revenue
2 Would not be cost effective
1.3 Area not suitable for public transportation
3.8 Other
0 Unsure/no answer

Those voting against the sales tax in #14a are generally the “no taxes, period” crowd. Unfortunately their message has gotten blurred by repetition and the message is lost.

Once again we have a superlative question. One could look at these answers and say that only 1.3% of the 38% who are against the sales tax idea don’t favor public transportation, so 99.5% favor public transportation for our area. Notice, too, that only 5.6% say that they won’t use the rail system. Of course, this is not accurate because of the construction of the question. Also, where is any mention about the regressive nature of sales taxes? If sales tax increases are the answer to raising money for one sector of government spending, then why isn’t it appropriate for the general fund? The same reasons should apply in either case.

Q. 16. Do you agree or disagree with people who say that they could not vote for any funding
plan for new or expanded public transportation unless there is also an increase in ridership fees, so the people using the systems are paying more to help defray the costs?
52.7% Agree
39.7 Disagree
7.6 Unsure/no answer

Q. 17. Do you agree or disagree with people who say that they could not vote for any funding
plan for new or expanded public transportation unless there is also an increase in housing and
development impact fees, so that new growth is helping to defray the costs?
52.4% Agree
39.9 Disagree
7.7 Unsure/no answer

Q. 18. Do you agree or disagree with people who say that they could not vote for any funding
plan for new or expanded public transportation that would allow tax money collected in their
county to be spent in nearby counties?
42.2% Agree
52.4 Disagree
5.4 Unsure/no answer

Now that is a wordy trio of questions! It looks as if people somewhat feel that we should work as a region as well as increase the toll on both the riders and the newcomers. The only fallacy with the latter is that we are framing the argument for rail transit in the light of moving the newcomers (remember, congestion currently isn’t a big problem with the people that are already here), yet no plan exists to serve the areas where the people will move with rail transit. So y’all move here and buy less than half of a percent of us a billion-dollar train.

Q. 19. I would like to read you two things that people have said. After I am done, please tell me which opinion comes closest to yours…(rotated)….
…(Some/other) people say that a regional approach is a good idea, so that a single plan can be developed for traffic problems that affect the entire area, rather than each county making their own plans. They want future new or expanded public transportation systems to be planned and managed on a regional basis…
…(Other/some) people say that traffic issues should be managed locally by each individual
county because their needs are different and, covering such a large area, it won’t be possible to come up with fair solutions which meet each county’s needs. They want future new or expanded public transportation systems to be planned and managed by each individual county…
Which opinion comes closest to yours?
63.2% Planned and managed on a regional basis
32.8 Planned and managed by each individual county
4 Unsure/no answer

I wonder how many 6th-grade-educated people got this far in the survey. Less than 2/3 of the people want us to work together as a “region”. Can the poller define “region”? Is Johnston County at the table? Is Cary at the table? How about Holly Springs, Carrboro, Roxboro, Wake Forest, and other outlying communities (the ones that will gladly accept newcomers in sprawlish developments to increase their tax bases). This is the biggest problem with heavy-handed development guidelines for a place like Raleigh. There is always a nearby community willing to build what the newcomers want so they can get the tax revenue.

Q. 20. Thinking about the kinds of people who should be on the board of directors to oversee a new or expanded public transportation system in the Triangle area, do you think it should be made up of…(rotated)…elected officials that will be accountable to voters…or…experts that have specialized skills and knowledge?
17.3% Elected officials
59.1 Experts
20.1 Both (volunteered)
3.5 Unsure/no answer

Please define “expert” and ask yourself if Atlanta and D.C. ever consulted any “experts” for their skills and knowledge. This question also begs another: Is it possible for “experts” to think outside of the box? We see the same models used in dozens of cities across America, yet sprawl and cars still almost totally dominate our ways of life.

Q. 21. Prior to this survey, have you ever heard of the agency named Triangle Transit, or also known by the initials T-T-A? Follow-up if yes: Would you say that you approve or disapprove of the work that it does?
57.6% Yes, approve
5.9 Yes, disapprove
2.9 Yes, mixed opinion (volunteered)
20 Yes, heard/no opinion (volunteered)
10.7 No, never heard
2.9 Unsure/no answer

10% have never heard of TTA. That’s a little lower than I expected. Good job, TTA. I’d like a clearer definition of “approve” and “the work that it does”.

The final questions were demographic ones, and revealed that those surveyed represent fairly well, a cross section of our area, though the distribution of the poll is skewed toward the western half of the Triangle.

So, the survey has some serious flaws. Also flawed is the press release from the Regional Transportation Alliance. Data that supports the idea of “light rail” in the area is highlighted as to present a case the the public is clamoring for a system as soon as possible. As shown in the discussion, several of the questions are too flawed to necessarily support this conclusion. One could reach faulty conclusions from this same survey to argue that light rail isn’t desired. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a press release like this one come about:

Only 30% of the public feels that we aren’t headed in the right direction. More than half of residents want to focus not on traffic, but on improving education and expanding the tax base. Congestion was a key issue for only 3.3% of the voters. The voters also feel that the main reason to consider light rail is to relieve congestion. Therefore, voters do not feel we need light rail, but think it is a nice option as long as someone else is paying for it.

The truth lies somewhere in between. The best way to reach the real truth is for both sides to ignore their biases and truly analyze the issues. Honest discussion about the true costs, the true benefits, and real alternatives to both 20 mpg cars and high occupancy trains needs to happen. Headlines like WRAL’s “ Poll: More than half of voters support mass transit ” and its lead paragraph are disingenuous and manipulative. Surveys like this one and the one released by the TTA two years ago don’t get us any closer to concluding how to deal with upcoming growth. Growth can be great. We need to make it that way honestly and unemotionally.

  • Erik

    I think you make a lot of good points about the survey design, but unfortunately some of your assessments are quite flawed in my opinion. For example, you seem to intimate that the only public transportation improvement would be light rail. That’s far from the truth. If you read the STAC report or the long-range transportation plans, you will see that expanded bus service would precede any rail service.

    So those who answered “Ability to travel to more destinations” might be thinking about expanded bus service more than train service. If you don’t own a car or can’t drive because of age or disability and you live in, say, Fuquay-Varina and need access to services in Raleigh, the ability to travel to more destinations might really be the biggest benefit of an expanded public transportation (which doesn’t just mean trains).

    You compare passenger trips to overall population. And even if that comparison meant anything (which is doesn’t), you’re still just looking at rail, not expanded bus service. It’s funny that you mention the bias you think RTA has toward rail, but they don’t seem to be the only ones with rail on the brain!

    I think the truly important question is #3. That’s the proposal before the State Legislature right now and even you don’t quibble with the wording of the question. The takeaway to me is that, despite a terrible economy and before any kind of education/campaigning has begun, a higher percentage of those surveyed support a half-cent sales tax as oppose it. Touting that as positive is not out of place.

    • https://www.danamccall.com Dana

      Well, of course I have rail on the brain. That’s all this whole survey is really about. Cities don’t float trial balloons like this survey in order to roll out a larger bus-only system. I like your other points, though!

  • RaleighRob

    Lots of questions but here are a few thoughts….

    Q3- Yes a slight margin. But presidents have been picked by far less.

    Q5- Here’s my main disagreement with you: No, I don’t “wonder about” those who picked “more destinations” or “convenience”. You assume everyone has a car. Many poor people do not. Many many seniors do not. Many disabled people do not. Many people living in downtown/urban areas or on college campuses don’t have cars either. And I dare say, if this poll was extended to people under 18, that number would be much higher still. So what I *do* wonder is that the number of folks picking those two options should be even higher! If you combine the two (since they are similar), you do get a fifth of the respondents. I personally would have expected closer to a quarter or more.

    Q7- On this one, I totally agree with you. Having people able to only pick one answer makes the RDU option show up ridiculously low. Who wouldn’t want a rail line to go there? Wouldn’t make any sense. (Similarly, one of the more popular R Line stops I’ve noticed during weekdays is the one closest to the Greyhound Station. Transit begets transit. Go fig.)

    Q9 – I’m guessing some of those who voted no more bus lines are doing so cuz they’d rather see the funds go to rail…or perhaps to make other existing lines fareless. Just a guess.

  • https://www.raleighmsa.com Ernest


    Let me say up front, in case anyone wonders, and/or gives a damn, that I am big supporter of light rail and better transportation initiatives. I think we need them, and I want to see major improvements over the next 10 years, or sooner, if possible.

    Here is my take on the questions you stated:

    Q1 – Vague, at best.
    Q2 – You said it. Obviously, people do not place traffic and public transportation high in their priority list – nothing wrong with that.
    Q3 – You are right on the money, Dana.
    Q4 – Useless question, IMO.
    Q5 thru Q7 – Very good questions, I think.
    Q8 thru Q11 – Standard questions, regardless of the answers.
    Q12 thru Q18 – Yes, someone has to pay for it :LOL:
    Q19 – A better definition of “regional” would be nice, but I think they want to focus on the “group effort vs. individual effort” argument, regardless of the number of municipalities involved. Good question, as many times in the past I heard that Raleigh should move forward as a city and ignore TTA’s effort, if the latter are too slow and not effective. Our needs as a city may differ from those of the region (Triangle).
    Q20 – Fair question.
    Q21 – Yeah, 90& of the people know TTA :LOL: Hopefully, those behind the poll will not be fooled by this. Probably 90% of the Triangle residents never heard of TTA.

    This survey is just another survey, IMO. Nothing revealing, but nevertheless a first step for getting the pulse. Unfortunately, most people don’t care, or simply cannot attend, therefore we cannot draw safe conclusions by preaching to the choir.

    While I am a supporter of light rail and better mass transit options, I would caution officials about the risks. Public transit is not there to make money. Riders have great expectations and the costs of operating a reliable public transit network are huge. We MUST serve large numbers, or else we stand to fail early in the game. Let’s study the corridors that have potential and encourage good urban redevelopment/infills near the envisioned stations. So far, we have failed miserably and many Triangle residents hesitate to throw their support. Don’t wait for light rail to get higher densities. Let’s put the latter in place before we demand public funding.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dana. While you may be a little harsh, you are right on the money. Public transit enthusiasts should listen both sides of the story, not allow themselves to become too emotional on this issue. We need responsible officials, who know how to manage public funding and don’t serve ideological agendas. Engage private entities and restore faith in the public sector. Then get out and provide solutions. Easier said than done, I assume…

  • Jenna

    Dana, I couldn’t agree more. Most of these questions are useless and/or leading. But what else would we expect from an organization that has such a clear pro-rail (rather than simply anti-congestion) agenda?

  • https://www.danamccall.com Dana

    I really appreciate all of you reading through this very long entry. Some of these questions in the poll made me scratch my head. However to read WRAL’s headline and story, one would think that the area is dying for a transit system and is ready and willing to implement a large tax to pay for it. This is not really what the answers reflect, however, and I’m still waiting for a poll that shows what the public truly thinks about high-occupancy rail transit.

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