The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) released the results of a 1,000-person survey late yesterday afternoon about the project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. It found that many local residents were unfamiliar or undecided about the proposal for a deep-bore tunnel. But after being barraged with pro-tunnel messages, support grew dramatically. Here's a comparison of the initial support to the support after people are "informed":
What do the informed people know—and what informative questions were they asked—that they didn't know before it started (questions and responses in this .pdf)? A few samples:
Were you aware or not that rebuilding Alaskan Way without the viaduct will improve the health of Puget Sound by capturing and cleaning up contaminated storm water that currently drains off the viaduct and directly into the Sound.
In response, 64 percent of people said they weren't aware that the new freeway would be good for Puget Sound and 83 percent thought that was important.
Were you aware or not that the bored tunnel is the only viaduct replacement option that keeps the existing viaduct open to traffic during construction, meaning there will be no interruption for people who rely on the viaduct to get around.
Fifty-five percent of people weren't aware that the tunnel kept traffic open during construction and 85 percent of people thought that was important.
Two thirds of Viaduct traffic passes through Seattle for some other destination. The bored tunnel maintains capacity for these trips which are critical for local businesses and commercial traffic.
Thirty-two percent of respondents were not aware of this and 80 percent thought this was important.
In the same vein, much of the poll leans on leading questions with predictable answers like whether congestion will get worse if we tear down the viaduct (78 percent say yes), whether people want more or equal road capacity (87 percent combined yes), and the importance of unfettered road access.
After several more unflinching pro-tunnel arguments (like "making it easier to get around downtown" but nothing about how it would put 28,000-60,000 more vehicles a day on downtown streets), this is how the argument against the tunnel is summarized in its entirely:
Critics of the bored tunnel say it is flawed because it perpetuates our reliance on cars, creates more pollution, and forces Seattle citizens to be responsible for cost overruns.
The poll does ask one question about the existence of cost overruns: Were you aware that there is legislation stating that Seattle taxpayers will be responsible for any cost overruns? Seventy-one percent of people were aware and 80 percent of people thought that was important.
But the poll omits major concerns about the project—and makes no attempt to balance the pro-tunnel rhetoric with the problems with it. Some obvious questions that they could have asked but didn't: Did you know that traffic will increase on downtown streets when we build the tunnel, more than half of the existing users won't take it, it has no downtown exits, bidders are dropping out, the legislature can still make Seattle property owners pay cost overruns if it hits its spending cap, financing from the port is not in place, the tolling plan is not complete and may come up short, the soil conditions are perilous, overruns on this sort of project are astronomical and commonplace?
None of that, huh?
I called WSDOT spokeswoman Kristy Van Ness about the poll. She said the state paid EMC Research $60,000 for the survey of 1,000 residents and there's more information over here. What's the function of the poll? She couldn't comment, she said, but project manager Ron Paananen would call me back. He didn't. But I reached Ian Stewart, vice president of EMC Research, who said all that other tunnel stuff—the stuff that might give people a negative view of the tunnel—was left out because that wasn't the point of the survey. "The purpose of the poll was to find out what information people were aware of," he said. He notes that they did ask whether people knew about the cost-overrun provision—but as for the unstable financing, the likelihood of cost overruns on a project like this, the massive traffic diversion, and other project drawbacks, Stewart says they never considered those. "Those diversion issues and tolling issues we're not getting into, but will be looked into in the future," he said.
Stewart said something else revealing: "Part of the intent is finding out what information should WSDOT be providing that people are not aware of."
In this case, it seems that WSDOT's clear intent was identifying the most convincing talking points to cultivate more support for the project and demonstrate that most of the public supports them—while leaving out the unknown information that might cripple public support.
There's nothing wrong with political message polling, per se. And admittedly, lots of folks do support the deep-bore tunnel (with gusto). And... if highway officials want to make the case that the public agrees with them, that's super. But using such a plainly skewed poll that leaves out potentially fatal flaws and instead bangs the drum of its virtues doesn't prove that people are reaching an "informed" opinion. It also doesn't instill confidence that WSDOT—spending $60,000 of the project's budget on a poll that omits essential questions—is interested in making an informed decision, either.