Urban Politics #123: Polls On Sound Transit — Part II

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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.



  • Comparison Of Polls
  • Analysis-King County Poll
  • Analysis–Sound Transit Poll

Comparison Of Polls

Both polls have similar demographics for age, time living in the Puget Sound region, and home ownership. Both find over 60% identify transportation as the most important regional issue.

The Sound Transit poll surveyed registered voters in the Sound Transit voting district, which includes portions of Snohomish, King and Pierce Counties, while the King County Poll surveyed King County registered voters.

I’ll now turn to an analysis of the polls, in particular of the critiques.

Analysis-King County Poll

— Sound Transit Rating

The poll finds a 47.5% unfavorable rating for Sound Transit, with 34% favorable. The question notes that “Sound Transit is a regional transportation agency that was created to provide new transportation services to Snohomish, King and Pierce Counties,” before asking to rate “Éthe job Sound Transit has been doing”.

This phrasing seems neutral enough.

— Should a New Vote be Required?

Regarding a new vote, the poll says “Sound Transit was created by the vote of the people in 1996 so that we could build a regional transportation system. After cost overruns and delays, many people believe that the public should be able to vote on a new proposal that includes a new Monorail and state of the art express buses. Do you think that the public should stick with the shorter Sound Transit light rail proposal or vote on a new plan”?

19% favored sticking with the Sound Transit plan; 67.5% favored voting on a new plan-a sharp difference of nearly 50%.

This question was criticized because Sound Transit is building light rail and also operates express buses, while the monorail is a City of Seattle-specific project.

While it seems fair to note that Sound Transit is doing more than just light rail, it would be difficult to assess whether people support exploring an alternative without naming something, in this case the light rail proposal. Noting “many people” want a new vote is accurate, but frames the question in a more positive light rather than just saying, for example that “there is a proposal for a new voteÉ”

While the phrasing may have impacted the percentages that resulted, clearly, a lot of people in King County would like to vote on a new proposal.

—- Light Rail-Monorail Comparison

The question that lists 36% preferring a monorail to 28% for light rail says, “There have been numerous proposals on how to deal with our transportation problems. If you were given the choice, would you invest our region’s transportation dollars in a light rail system or a new Monorail system with express buses?”

The issue here seems similar to the previous question. The question compares two alternative regional transportation systems: light rail vs. monorail/express buses. Critics of the poll point out that ST also pays for express buses, so the comparison should have been between light rail & express buses vs. monorail & express buses. Although that would have been a good question, the question asked does not negate the public’s assessment of comparing light rail itself against other forms of transportation.

— University or Northgate?

The poll was also criticized for asking whether people would be more or less likely to support the light rail line if “Instead or traveling from Northgate to the Airport, the first phaseÉ(goes) from downtown to one mile short of the SeaTac Airport”.

The critique is that light rail was proposed from the University District to SeaTac, while the poll implies Northgate was proposed.

The truth is somewhere in between. The 1996 ballot title identified light rail as traveling from SeaTac to the University District, and then read, in parentheses, “(Éand, if additional funding is secured, Roosevelt District and Northgate;). So while service to only the University District was proposed, the ballot measure specifically listed Northgate as a possibility. So it’s fair to say it was “sold” as going to Northgate.

Another bone of contention is the phrasing about whether light rail will “run on the surface like a streetcar and will only average 20 MPH”. Sound Transit estimates it will travel 27 m.p.h., although their 1993 EIS estimates the speed at about 20 m.p.h. Portland’s on the surface MAX line travels at about 20 m.p.h. Most of the ST light rail line will run on the surface, but not all of it.

Analysis–Sound Transit Poll

The order of the Sound Transit poll is important, so I’ll analyze it in order.

— Comparison of Transportation Agencies

The poll finds a “favorable” rating for Sound Transit of 41%; compared to 28% unfavorable (each category broken into “strongly” and “somewhat”); while ST’s rating is overall positive by 13%, the proportions are less than the positive ratings for other transportation agencies:

— King County Metro Transit: 65% favorable, 15% unfavorable
— Pierce Transit 36%-10%;
— Community Transit 38%-9%
— Washing State Ferry System 66%-21%

— Comparison of traffic solutions

As mentioned above, a “regional mass transit light rail system” was listed as “effective” by 69% versus 25% who found it “ineffective” (again each category was broken down by “very” or “somewhat”), in helping to solve traffic problems in our region. Other services were polled regarding their effectiveness:

— Expanded express bus service: 75%-20% positive
— Expanded commuter rail: 75%-20%
— Local regional buses: 72%-19%
— Adding one lane each direction to I-405: 66%-25%
— Widening I-5 to add lanes: 61%-36%
— One lane of I-5 for buses: 51-45%
— More HOV lanes: 51-43%

— Sound Transit performance

The poll then asks people to rate the performance of Sound Transit in various areas.

— 22% doing an excellent or good overall job; 33% fair, and 23% poor
— 13% good or excellent on planning light rail, 22% fair, 41% poor
— 8% excellent or good on managing finances, 16% fair, 38% poor

It’s noteworthy that instead of using criteria such as “very favorable” and “somewhat favorable”, and “somewhat unfavorable” and “very unfavorable”-in other words, 2 positive and 2 negative options–this section instead has two categories for positive responses, 1 negative option, and one neutral option. So unlike the previous two questions, the overall approval rate for ST is given an advantage to the negative category, particularly if ST supporters combine the category “fair” with the excellent and good categories.

— Regional Express Bus and Commuter Rail

The poll then asks a 145-word question, offering detailed information about Sound Transit’s already implemented Regional Express Bus service and Sound Commuter Rail. The question tells about the number of trips and passengers, and then asks, “Knowing this, do you have a strongly favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable or strongly unfavorable opinion of the services that Sound Transit has already implemented?”

After hearing this; 73% are favorable; 16% unfavorable. 79%-13% then support expanding Sounder Commuter Rail, and 81%-11% for expanding Regional Express Bus Service.

Both questions specifically mention Sound Transit, and the name of the service (but offer no information about costs, or commuter rail’s cost overruns and service problems).

— Light Rail-yes or no?

The next question addresses light rail:

“In addition to Regional Express Bus and Sounder Commuter Rail, the third transportation service that the measure approved was a light rail train system. Do you think a light rail train system should be one of the solutions to our region’s transportation problems-yes or no”?

66% say yes; 22% no.

The phrasing of this question is noticeably different than the questions about Sounder Commuter Rail and Regional Express Bus Service; both questions specifically mention both “Sound Transit” and the name of the service. On the other hand, the light rail question mentions neither Sound Transit nor the name of the service, “Link Light Rail”. Instead, it says “a light rail train system,” while mentioning the other two already-implemented services. It is very conceivable that someone would support a light rail system but not ST’s Link light rail, so by not naming ST specific project light rail’s project the positive numbers are likely to be greater than if it had been named.

While these uses (or non-use) of terms may seem coincidental, phrasing in polls should be done very carefully since they can set a tone that can make the person more likely to give a positive or negative answer. The order of these questions can also play a role: by providing information about Sound Transit’s successes, and services up and running, it’s more likely there will be positive results when asking about the one service not yet running. While the information presented is not inaccurate, the order and phrasing may contribute to a biased response.

— Light Rail-a shorter line?

The next question acknowledges that “Sound Transit does not have the financing to build the original light rail system as planned from Sea-Tac Airport to North Seattle,” and asks “Should Sound Transit still build a scaled back portion of the original light rail plan”.

49% say ‘yes’, 36% ‘no’. Clearly, once people hear about the finances, support drops, even when the order of questions is friendly. This poll also does not mention other options, which may have helped the positive numbers.

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