SUMMARY: To promote taxpayer funding of a quarter-billion dollar commuter rail project, supporters last week touted a single poll question, without context, that appeared to show strong public support for commuter rail. It’s a tactic rail enthusiasts have repeated for years. Journalists, lawmakers and the public should be skeptical of such PR campaigns. This brief run through the complex commuter rail issue shows how misleading such PR boosterism can be.
First, everyone should be wary of any poll that purports to show broad support for an expensive public policy without mentioning costs or alternatives. In some cases, it’s useful to know whether people favor or disfavor an abstract concept. But when a specific policy with known costs is being polled, it’s helpful to ask whether people are willing to pay for the nice idea in question.
The New Hampshire Legislature votes on bills, not concepts. Casino gambling is a good example. Despite the concept frequently drawing broad support from the public and members of the House, no specific bill has been able to pass the Legislature once the details are laid out. Every issue involves tradeoffs, which abstract poll questions often miss.
This particular commuter rail poll question did not inform respondents of the cost of the project. Nor did it tell them anything about rail’s impact on traffic, zoning regulations, population density, decreased funding for other public works projects, or other quality-of-life issues. Respondents also were not asked whether they would favor a state-run or private option. Without such details, we don’t really know whether the public supports the actual commuter rail projects under consideration.
The St. Anselm College poll question asked, simply:
“Would you support or oppose commuter rail connecting Manchester or Nashua with Boston?”
Unsurprisingly, three-fourths of respondents (75.5 percent) were in favor. This is similar to 2015 poll that found 74 percent support for commuter rail in the abstract, with no cost mentioned. The 2015 poll was promoted by the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority, the second by N.H. Business for Rail Expansion. Advocacy groups are using abstract poll questions to promote a specific project, the taxpayer-funded, state-developed Capitol Corridor Rail Expansion Project. But the public is not being asked about any details of this project.
Before accepting these poll results at face value, journalists and lawmakers should consider whether they would publish a story or cast a vote after asking only a single, generic question. Commuter rail is a complex issue. Asking whether people would prefer commuter rail in the abstract is like asking if people would prefer to eat ice cream every day. Of course they would. But their answers will change if asked to weigh the tradeoffs.
Regarding commuter rail, unless the topics listed in this briefing paper are covered, people have not been asked to make an informed choice between competing options. They have merely been asked whether they would like to see ice cream on the menu.
Read the full paper in pdf form here: Skeptic’s Guide To Commuter Rail Brief.