Urban Politics #122: Polls On Sound Transit — Part I

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Assistant Newell Aldrich on this issue.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



  • Polls On Sound Transit
  • What The Polls Tell Us
  • King County Council Poll, Jan 9 2002
  • Sound Transit Poll, June 2001
  • Seattle Times Poll, May 2001

*** The review and analysis of the public opinion polls on Sound Transit has been divided into issue of Urban Politics #122 and #123. This edition #122 gives an overview, my conclusions and the highlights of three polls. The next edition #123 provides an analysis of the two major polls to determine how accurate they are in measuring public opinion.

Polls On Sound Transit

As this region is about to begin constructing Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail, the debate continues on as to whether we are creating a solution to our traffic congestion or something so far less as to be not worth the effort.

This debate has both guided and been fueled by a number of polls that have appeared at times to come to different conclusions as to how supportive or critical the general public is towards Sound Transit (ST) and in particular it’s Link Light Rail project.

At last Monday’s City Council Briefing Meeting I asked, Joni Earl, the Executive Director of Sound Transit, what assurance could she provide the City that the public supports the current Light Rail Project, given that it is only, 2/3 the original length, costs $ 1 billion more, and has only 1/3 the ridership (42,500 versus 127,600 daily boardings in 2020 – with 2/3 of these coming from existing bus riders).

There was a long silence and then an answer that basically said ST assumed the support was still there and there was no need to allow the public to vote for other alternative projects. CM Richard McIver asked if there were any evidence that the public did not support the current project.

A new poll released this past week, but taken in November, may have answered his question. And if it is accurate, it looks like the public may be ready for tossing in the towel on ST’s light rail project.

On January 8, 2002, King County Councilmembers released a poll on Sound Transit and other transportation issues. The poll found support for Sound Transit’s Link light rail line has eroded significantly in the last six months, since a June 2001 Sound Transit Poll.

The King County poll was criticized for giving inaccurate details on Sound Transit, and listing proposals that don’t exist. The previous Sound Transit poll was criticized for not offering alternatives or enough factual information, and question phrasing that predisposed people to support Sound Transit.

Because of their importance I’ve asked the Council to review both polls this Monday morning at their Briefings Meeting; the item is scheduled to begin at 9:50 a.m.

What The Polls Tell Us

First of all let’s be clear what the polls cannot tell us. They cannot tell us if ST’s light rail project is a good or bad project. But what they can determine is whether the public thinks it is. And as ST Link Light Rail’s multi-billion dollar project is about to begin construction in 6 months, the issue has been raised as to whether it should proceed without a vote of confidence from the public.

I think this is a particularly important question to raise in light of the fact that ST’s own most recent EIS document (December 2001) shows that the adopted South Route will only reduce traffic congestion by 1% over doing nothing. Even if the entire original route, from the Airport to the University District, were adopted the EIS shows only a 3% reduction in traffic congestion.

These margins are so thin, that they fall within the standard deviation of any proposed model. In other words they are statistically irrelevant. The practical impact is that after spending billions of dollars traffic congestion will be about the same as it would have been without building the proposed ST light rail project.

The battle of the polls takes place within this context. If the polls can show that the public is satisfied with the ST light rail project, then there is no need to vote again. The project has retained the public’s confidence and the work should commence as soon as possible, regardless of what results.

If the polls show that the ST light rail project has lost the public’s confidence, then a request for another public vote can be justified.

Consequently each side in this debate has produced polls with the other side attacking them as being politically motivated and improperly designed. It’s clear that how questions are phrased, and in what order, and what information is given, can impact what responses people give. This next edition of Urban Politics #123 reviews both polls to determine how reliable each reflects public opinion.

However, it is apparent that support for Sound Transit has fallen within King County, in particular for light rail and that as far back as May 2001 there have been a significant number of people who would like an opportunity to vote on a new plan. The political question is whether public support has fallen enough to justify a new vote on transportation alternatives. That is the question that is being ignored by politicians, rather than being the focus of our public discussions.

King County Council Poll – Dec 2001

The King County Council commissioned the Olympic Institute to study Sound Transit and other transportation issues; McGuire Research Services of Denver conducted the poll, in late December 2001. The poll surveyed 400 King County registered voters, and has an error margin of plus or minus 5%. The poll is partly modeled on the earlier Sound Transit poll, and cost $10,500.

The key findings are:

— 47% of respondents have an unfavorable opinion of Sound Transit’s performance, compared to 34% favorable;

— 67% would like to vote on a new plan, versus 19% who’d like to stick with Sound Transit’s light rail proposal;

— When given the choice between investing in a light rail system or a new Monorail system with express buses, 28% chose light rail, 36% monorail, 15% neither, and 11% both.

The poll also found that over 50% of people were less likely to support transferring the bus tunnel to Sound Transit once informed the bus tunnel would be closed for two years; 56% were less likely to support light rail once informed that the first phase would not travel from Northgate to the Airport, but rather from downtown to one mile short of SeaTac Airport.

Sound Transit Poll, June 2001

Sound Transit commissioned a poll conducted by Evans/McDonough Research in June, 2001. 800 voters in the tri-county Sound Transit voting district were surveyed; the poll has an error margin of plus or minus 3.5%, and cost $40,000.

The key findings were:

— 69% see a regional mass transit light rail system as effective in solving traffic problems in the region; 25% see light rail as ineffective;

— 66% think a light rail train system should be one of the solutions to the region’s transportation problems, versus 22% who say “no”;

— Sound Transit’s “favorable” versus “unfavorable” rating was 41%-28%;

— 73% favorable ratings for services already implemented versus 16% unfavorable;

— 79% favor expanding Sounder Commuter Rail, versus 13% opposed;

— 81% favor expanding Regional Express Bus Service, versus 11% opposed;

— 49% favored building a scaled back portion of the original light rail plan; 36% said no;

— 22% rated the overall job Sound Transit is doing as excellent or good; 33% fair, 23% poor;

— 13% rated the job Sound Transit is doing at planning light rail excellent or good; 22% fair, and 41% poor;

— 8% rated Sound Transit’s management of finances excellent or good; 16% fair, 38% poor.

The poll can be downloaded at Sound Transit’s Website.

Seattle Times Poll, May 2001

An additional poll on Sound Transit was conducted by Elway Research for the Seattle Times and Northwest Cable News in May of 2001. The results were different from the Sound Transit poll conducted the following month; among the results were:

— 40% favored abandoning light rail and using the money for non-light rail transportation options; 37% a smaller light-rail system; 14% a tax increase to build the original light rail line

— 47% favored getting light rail started; 49% found light rail not workable or unable to justify the costs

— 50% favored placing a new plan on the ballot; 40% thought a new vote would be a waste

While this is a bit of a mixed bag, according to this poll, support for light rail was eroding; the poll gave information about finances, Sound Transit falling behind schedule, and mentioned other options.

This poll is available here:

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