by Carolyn Chase


If you ask someone waiting in line if they would like to get out of the line and get their business done without having to wait, you know the answer you will get. Heck yes -- get me out of this line!

    If you then ask - how much will you pay to go to the front of the line - it can then get a bit more interesting. What would you pay to go to the front of the line - if you knew when you got there you would still have to wait?

    It may be axiomatic to say that the answers you get depend upon the questions you ask. But with billions of dollars of decisions riding upon the influence of polls and focus groups, what questions are asked and how issues are framed is a key concern for the public good.

    Higher taxes or higher traffic? Which would you choose? The problem is, we are getting both. San Diegans have always been concerned, and ocassionally alarmed, about growth and its mismanagement. This has led to a raft of studies and polls attempting to determine who thinks what. This is especially germaine since tax increases now require voter approval.

    In April, SANDAG held three focus groups asking a total of 28 individuals countywide what they knew and thought about the TransNet half-cent sales tax that funds local transportation projects and is expiring in 2008. They then did follow-up phone polling with a representative sample of likely voters, attempting to determine what support there is for extending or increasing the tax and including funding for open space and water quality.

    MTDB did their phone poll May 16-19, 2001, in an obvious and necessary attempt to hold their own against the SANDAG pollmeisters. The Nature Conservancy stirred the pot with their poll a year ago saying that adding funding for land and water issues was critical to passage. Since then, San Diego Dialogues did focus groups, polling, and then long follow-up interviews about growth. Needing their own view, the Realtors and National Association of Homeowners did their own poll about TransNet earlier this year.

    Susan Golding had attempted to use The Nature Conservancy poll to place a TransNet sales-tax extension on the November 2000 ballot that expanded the measure to provide badly needed local funding for open space and water quality needs.

    The 125-page "summary" report on the polls is worth spending some time with. While SANDAG is focusing on the rosy results - their poll showed that 70% of voters were willing to vote "yes" on an extension - it remains to be seen whether the agencies involved are able to do the work required to attain that vote.

    Much of that has to do with the details. You may be able to sell a rosy scenario - but do the agencies involved have what it takes to deliver? To the extent they asked, the focus groups and polls all showed a great, underlying mistrust of the system. Those results are less likely to make it into agency press releases.

    The MTDB poll began by asking people to rate nine transportation-related issues "in San Diego County as excellent, good, only fair, or poor." They also recorded "don't know" responses.

    In answer to the three main aspects of SANDAG's job, the results are less than stellar and showed a high negative response.

    To "the job local government is doing addressing growth," (in a survey with 3.5% statistical range) a mere 1% answered excellent. 17% responded good. 77% responded in the categories only fair (38%) and poor (39%). 5% admitted they didn't know.

    The only issue scoring worse with the public was: "Traffic flow on area freeways" - with 87% rating only fair (32%) and poor (55%) and only 1% not knowing. The other issue with the highest negatives was: "the job local government is doing planning for transportation needs:" with 75% rating only fair (34%) and poor (38%) and 10% saying they didn't know.

    SANDAG pollsters took a different approach. Their first question was a list of 13 issues ( five of which were similar to MTDB list ) that people were asked to rate as "Important (extremely, very or somewhat), or Not at all important. They recorded don't knows. They did not ask their sample what they thought of the services currently being delivered. Frankly, it would have been nice to see both types of these questions in the same poll but SANDAG seems less interested in what is thought of their services than in what they can make people think of them.

    SANDAG ran two versions of their poll - one testing a "transportation only" measure and one testing a TransNet that added funding for open space and water quality issues. Both polls showed support for a combined measure -even overcoming question bias.

    In the transportation only poll, they asked, "would you be more or less likely to support extending the TransNet sales tax if some of the money would be used to fund these projects [preserve open space, reduce pollution caused by stormwater unoff, and manage growth], keeping in mind it would reduce the money available for transportation improvements?" 61% said they would be Much More or Somewhat More likely with only 26% reporting in the 2 less-likely categories, and 4% Don't Know.

    In the combined poll, 52% agreed with the statement, "I would oppose this measure if all of the money was dedicated to expand the transportation system, with no funding for water quality and open space conservation." This is the current position of the San Diego Sierra Club.

    But 55% of the same group also agreed with the statement, "All of the money raised by the measure should continue to be dedicated to improving transportation and reducing traffic congestion, not diverted to fund other projects like open space and improving water quality.

    This is a long way of saying that polls are not at all definitive - because they don't allow for any meaningful integration between the statements and issues - or resolution of even obvious conflicts.

    78% then agreed that "transportation improvements need to be balanced with our need to protect open space, improve water quality and manage growth."

    This same group, when asked to "divide" $100 between the three issue areas, gave $43.05 for transportation and $56.93 combined total for open space and water quality.

    The one question asked about the influence of independent endorsers - pushed on to the SANDAG survey by this writer - showed that voters do indeed look to groups such as the Sierra Club and the San Diego Taxpayers Association for clues on whether or not the details of these measures are worth supporting or opposing.

    The bottom line is whether or not the plan and the agencies implementing them have what it takes to deliver on the platitudes tested in any poll.