Lies, Damn Lies and Polls

What do Virginians think about taxes and transportation? It depends on who you ask — and who’s doing the asking.

The Washington Post thinks Northern Virginians want to raise taxes: “A large majority of Northern Virginia residents want the state to spend more money to fix the region’s roads and rails, and more than three-quarters say they wanted the opportunity to raise local taxes to do it, a new Washington Post poll shows.” Michael Shear reports:

The survey finds deep resentment among the region’s voters toward their government in Richmond, particularly the General Assembly. Only 9 percent of likely Northern Virginia voters polled said they were “very satisfied” that the government is working for the best interests of their part of the commonwealth. Forty-eight percent of those voters said they were dissatisfied, compared with 37 percent in other parts of the state.

At the same time, those likely voters living in the Washington suburbs gave extremely high marks to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), despite his having so far failed to make good on his campaign promise to help solve the region’s transportation problems. Almost 80 percent of Northern Virginians approve of the job he is doing as governor, the poll found.

In the poll, 55 percent of the region’s likely voters blamed lawmakers, especially Republicans, for the failed special session last month. Only 11 percent blamed Kaine.

According to Garren Shipley with the Northern Virginia Daily, another recent poll by SurveyUSA found that 87 percent of voters think it is “very” or “somewhat” important to spend more money on the state’s road system. But 65 percent opposed raising license fees for cars, 83 percent opposed raising the gas tax, and 70 percent opposed raising the sales tax on cars and trucks. On the other hand, 58 percent supported taking money from the general fund — just as House Republicans proposed. Does someone smell a disconnect?

Why the huge disparity? Part of the reason is that the Washington Post surveyed Northern Virginia voters, while SurveyUSA polled Virginia voters generally. Northern Virginia voters appear to be more receptive to tax increases than downstaters.

But there may well have been a difference in the questions asked. People tend to be receptive to the idea of tax increases in the abstract, thinking that someone else will pay them. The more specific you get, the more likely people are to oppose them. The Post apparently did not ask citizens what they thought of specific taxes; SurveyUSA did. Additionally, SurveyUSA asked about an alternative funding mechanism for roads — tapping the General Fund surplus. People liked that idea. The Washington Post apparently did not remind Northern Virginians that the state has been running chronic budget surpluses nor that the General Fund alternative was even on the table.

Then, of course, there were the questions that neither poll asked:

– “Should VDOT be reformed before taxes are raised — to ensure that new revenues are not wasted?”

– “Should land use reform be part of any funding package — to ensure that new revenues are not wasted?”

– “Should new revenues for transportation be based on the principle that that those who drive the most should pay the most?”

– “Should any revenue-raising scheme, besides paying for new roads, be structured to encourage drivers to adopt alternative modes of transportation?”

– “Should new construction be paid for with tolls?”

Questions devoid of context or alternatives can lead people to any conclusion you want. If the pollster has unconscious biases, he will skew the findings. If the pollster has overt biases, the results are worthless. I could construct a poll showing that Virginians think the King of Siam would make a better governor than Tim Kaine. But it would be an artificial construct, not a reflection of reality.

Because the Washington Post and SurveyUSA polls reflect the mental constructs of those who fashioned the questions, they aren’t terribly meaningful in plumbing public sentiment.

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16 responses to “Lies, Damn Lies and Polls”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Here is what I saw in the Post Article:

    10/12/06 LV
    Reduce spending for other state services 23
    Increase taxes on all Virginians 17
    Increase user fees such as tolls 32
    (VOL) Some combination of these 2
    (VOL) Gas tax 2
    (VOL) Lottery funds 2
    (VOL) Increase taxes on SOME Virginians 2
    (VOL) Spend existing funds smarter/better 3
    Some other way 5
    No Opinion 11

    2% support a gas tax increase. 32% support user fees.

    I think this is crystal clear in terms of knowing a direction to head.

    The Headline for the article:

    Poll Shows Support for Tax Increase
    N.Va. Favors Fund For Transportation

    The headline… seems to say something completely different than the Poll itself…

    I think it is clear that people do NOT want a tax increase that goes to Richmond and they want a more direct connection between the money they spend .. and what it is spent for.

    That’s why they support user fees and I believe other polls show they support a regional sales tax as long as it is spent in NoVA and not sent to Richmond.

    Folks are not near as dumb as others think they are.

    There is absolutely NO support from rural or urban areas to collect money from everyone and put it in a Richmond/VDOT pot to reallocate.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Larry, Thanks for the additional numbers. I did not see them in the online version of the article.

    Sounds like the poll questions were somewhat better than I gave the Post credit for in my post. By contrast, the spin on the numbers was even more biased than I had suspected.

    I’m surprised that Michael Shear, who’s one of the more balanced political reporters on transportation issues, didn’t deem it worthy to mention that so many respondants favored tolls and cutting spending for other state services!

  3. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    The Washington Post has no ethical standards when it comes to a tax increase in Virginia.

    I would agree that many people in NoVA would probably support a tax increase for transportation. But inherent in that support is the likely assumption that something will improve. If, for example, the Post publicized the fact that the $4 B Silver Line will not improve traffic congestion, would people still support it? Could a Metro extension actually reduce traffic congestion? I would suspect so, but only if other policies are also adopted. If for example, the Fairfax County supervisors greatly limited parking at new developments at Tysons and other stops near the train, we might see improvements.

    Is that likely to happen? Probably not, based on prior votes of the supervisors. Will the Post discuss that? No. Will they poll that question? No.

    As you indicated, the use of congestion pricing would also improve traffic. Was that discussed or polled? No.

    Had the BoS obtained transportation proffer cash, things might be better. Post — no interest.

    The Post could have asked why is Fairfax County spending $6.8 M each year for the EDA to advertise to bring more businesses and more traffic to the County. Post — no interest. VDOT has no cost controls. Post — no interest. The CTB is controlled by lobbyists. Post — no interest.

    For whatever reason, the issue of increased taxes drives all Post coverage of Virginia. If a story or a poll question advances that goal, the Post will proceed. If not, it won’t. The Washington Post has no interest in Virginian solving their problems unless it also includes a tax increase.

  4. GS, NV Daily Avatar
    GS, NV Daily

    Better yet, try one that fits on the screen:

  5. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Congestion pricing is not on Virginia’s agenda. Those who want a full discussion should visit the FHWA Value Pricing Program announcement:

    We see many individuals referring to tolling projects as congestion pricing. Don’t be fooled. These projects are designed to take money from drivers to pay builders and bond holders. They will not reduce congestion.

    Congestion pricing projects reduce congestion by using the variable tolls to increase through put on existing lanes and investing the revenue to provide choices including commuter bus and rail service.

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Jim Bacon: despite your partial retraction on account of the specifics in this case, I think the general tenor of you comments concerning pools are correct.

    Too many polls are designed to support an agenda and not discover the facts. You might even include elections under that statement.

    Jim Wamsley: I don’t understand your comment, please elaborate. s it because the value pricing schemes don’t include variable tolls or because they will result in additional lanes that you seem to object? If congestion pricing is not on the agenda, is value pricing a close second?

  7. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Interesting note from the Connection newspaper. It’s a local paper that focuses on community news.

    Anyway, the Connection reports that the proposal by Fluor to build four HOT lanes on the Beltway. It seems that the inflation in construction costs has put its $900 M project in some jeopardy. It was reported that the Company is seeking $150 M in state or federal money to finance the project that would run from Springfield to the Dulles Toll Road.

    The project’s original costs were $700 M. Fluor is not certain what the final costs would be. But they are higher, so the Company is looking to taxpayers to pick up part of the tab.

    It strikes me that, perhaps, all other projects, both roads and rail, might also experience huge increases in costs. Perhaps, many of these projects simply cannot produce an adequate return on investment for whichever parties pay for them. Just maybe the costs of paving and tracking Virginia are simply too great for the value produced.

    Now the big questions are: Will the Governor, the Senate and MSM start rethinking the idea that we can tax and spend our way out of the mess? Will they say to the land speculators, developers and builders, “the salad days are over”? Will they start looking at solutions that are cost effective? Will they start asking whether transportation is the correct solution?

    Virginia cannot afford to spend billions building roads and rail. We need APFO, real economic & engineering standards for government-funded projects, a heckuva lot more telecommuting, and good jobs in locations that are not just in NoVA, Hampton Roads & Richmond.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “f, for example, the Post publicized the fact that the $4 B Silver Line will not improve traffic congestion, would people still support it?”

    Did the Springfield Interchange improve traffic congestion?

    How about the new Wilson Bridge?

    and when we say “improve traffic congestion” – are we talking about the Regional Grid or are we talking about specific locations within that grid?

    and when we say “improve traffic congestion” – do we mean – keep it from getting worse – as we grow or do we mean projects will not have a net affect on congestion at all – that once in place, the improvement will have no effect on congestion levels and they’ll be the same as if the project (Metro or roads) was built?

    Jim Bacon asked the question earlier – “what is the alternative”

    and so I’ll ask the next obvious question if the premise is that neither road nor rail improvements will improve congestion – is the answer – as far as road/rail improvements that they are a tremendous waste of money that – in the end- will not achieve the very things that are the justifications for them to go forward?

    NoVa will not build more traditional roads unless the EPA changes the restrictions. About the only roads that will go forward are those that demonstrate that they won’t ADD to pollution levels.

    That would be chokepoint optimizations, HOT lanes and Congestion Pricing Lanes.

    On the Rail side – If Tyson’s does not work – then are there better places for Metro to expand or are all of the rest even worse in terms of cost effectiveness – cost/benefit ratio?

    TMT – you end up advocating APF. Okay, that means you accept the growth as inevitable and essentially agree that we need more money for instrastructure – BUT – you’re pointing out that regardless of the source of the funds.. that Tysons is not a cost-effective project.

    Assume – that new money “appears”. What would you spend it on?

  9. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley


    You asked about two separate issues. Value pricing may include variable tolls. Value pricing is an umbrella term that includes both toll roads and congestion pricing.

    The difference in these two types of projects is why you toll and what you do with the money.

    Toll road projects are “designed to take money from drivers to pay builders and bond holders.”

    Congestion pricing projects are designed to reduce congestion by increased through put on existing lanes and providing more transportation choices.

    When you follow a soak the driver using variable tolls with out providing congestion eliminating alternatives the community does not benefit. I object to the lack of community benefit. Community benefit is often called “bank for the buck.”

    Additional lanes only reduce congestion when they eliminate backups. If the backup is caused by a bottleneck you have to solve the bottleneck, not add a bigger bottle. The added lane usually is a bigger bottle.

    To answer your second question. Is value pricing a close second. No, it does not address either congestion or mobility. When tied to a public private partnership is is a fee tied directly to waste, fraud and abuse.

  10. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry, your questions are good ones. Personally, I don’t think that we can build our way out of congestion in the D.C. area. There are too many barriers, EPA, cost, anti-development, etc. That is not to say that we should never widen a road or lay track. I don’t think that the solution is to live in an efficiency apartment near transit.

    I believe in property rights, but the right to develop land is not paramount to other property rights. People should not suffer huge declines in their quality of life or ever-escalating real estate taxes so some can develop their property at will.

    I believe that part of the solution is APF. I swim at a public pool. Sometimes, I have a lane to myself; othertimes, I share a lane with another swimmer; on occasion, I am forced to wait in line until a spot opens. Sure, it’s possible for three or four swimmers to use a single lane. But unless they all swim at the same pace, it becomes a mess. It’s much better for all when only two people swim in the same lane.

    I don’t like to wait for lanes to open. But, a ten-minute wait for space in a swimming lane does not deprive me of my membership in the county pool. Why is development different? It isn’t.

    We need a lot more telecommuting. We should consider imposing fair, cost-based impact fees that don’t vary depending on whether you make campaign contributions. We need to help steer some growth and good jobs outside the inner ring of NoVA. We need to fix VDOT and the CTB. We need to see alternatives and options.

    We’ll still live very far from paradise, but we could live better than we do.

    Perhaps, Facquier County does unreasonable things. I would find it objectionable were Fairfax County to rent all of the swim lanes each evening. That’s unreasonable. But that doesn’t happen. If it did, I and many other swimmers would be all over the Parks Authority.

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    What I hope to see – some day is a network region-wide approach to mobility.

    We spend BILLIONs on things that do not
    produce desired results – and we – often – do not even know or seek to determine WHY – just seek more funding to fix the “crisis” and when you ask for something simple like the priority rank order of the needed improvements – what you get is not ranked lists but lists – and not just lists but separate lists of METRO and Roads.

    It’s so bad that both Metro and Roads don’t promise congestion relief – only that they will keep it from getting worse – and that’s more high hopes than any kind of reality.

    Our projects are not intermodal for the most part – an afterthought – look at the Silver Line.

    How important is it for METRO to be intermodal?

    With the Silver Line – it’s obviously OPTIONAL – even the Feds who fund it think it not important for it to functional intermodally.

    I say.. it it can’t be intermodal – don’t do it.

    HOV/HOT Lanes? where are the intermodal facilities in the plans?

    let’s see .. slug from a lot to a metro station … what a concept…

    Intermodal is a wonderful buzz word. You’ll find the words in almost every PLAN for something…

    I’m waiting for the Intermodal Plan for Wash Metro Area. Let me know when that critter hits the presses.

  12. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Are you saying that it is not congestion pricing if it involves building a new lane?

    That it is only congestion pricing if the money is spent on alternative transport?

    Isn’t any variable toll that controls the road for max throughput congestion pricing, no matter how the money is spent?

  13. Ray Hyde Avatar

    If we can’t afford to spend billions building roas and rail, then what difference does APFO make? How do you connect APFO with a plan to actually provide the facilities, or is APFO just another word for stalemate and dead end?

    If we cant build more roads because of EPA restrictions, how can we build anything else either? A house pollutes about half as much as a car does, so if we can’t have more cars, then restrictions on more houses, etc. must not be far behind.

    Most of the time you can move pretty much anywhere you like with little delay. I think most traffic congestion is a result of a few chokepoints. But, as soon as you unplug one, you make it possible for more traffic to flow and pretty soon this creates a new situation which results in another plug someplace else. For example when the mixing bowl is fixed it will make it easier for the 14th street bridge to back up.

    You either have to reduce the number of people going to the same destination, or increase the capacity. You can do that with either roads or Metro. To a lesser extent you can do it with bikes, but that means more residences closer in. Since residences also pollute, there is a limit to how much of that you can do, if Larry is right about EPA air restrictions. There is also a major cost involved in this.

    I can’t buy the argument that more lanes won’t help, but I don’t think we are going to get more lanes. More lanes add capacity so more people can travel, even if they don’t reduce congestion. Same goes for Metro. Unless you add a lot of capacity, enough to make up for not adding any for the last thirty years, you don’t solve the problem either way. This is one of the hidden messages in the Texas studies.

    Everytime somone gets on Metro, it frees up a space on the road, and the latent demand fills that space. Metro has not and will not reduce congestion, simply because auto travel is so much more convenient, provided it is possible.

    Metro depends on congestion, or it can’t work, unless we just ban cars. If you could magically increase road capacity, and if parking was availble, Metro use would drop. So calls to reduce parking or not add road capacity are really calls for more subsidy to Metro.

    As long as you have cars and metro you will have congestion. But, you could just ban cars and parking, if you provided enough metro stations so that everywhere was reasonably accessible. I think we would find out we don’t have enough money for that, either.

    But I’d say it would make a lot more sense for metro to have more stations within its service area than expand the area. Georgetown, for example. But the problem with that is, that the more stops you add and the more lines and intersections, the more metro’s problems start to resemble the auto’s problems. It gets slower because of the stops, more inconvenient because of the transfers, and it is harder to schedule the trains to avoid congestion. Right away you need a two track system so you can have express trains that don’t stop at every station. $200 billion anybody?

    But Wamsley is right about the bigger bottle. As long as you have the bottleneck, you have congestion. It is not cost effective to provide unlimited capacity, so you will always have congestion, unless you do one of two things: charge enough for travel, roads and metro, so that fewer people will make the trip. Or, change their destination by moving the job centers. In everyplace except HR and NOVA we already have provided more capacity than we are using, and it is that capacity that we are wasting. Rather than add still more capacity in the most expensive places, wouldn’t it make sense to use more of the unused capacity we have?

    If you charge congestion pricing to deter people from the roads, and price metro so that it is not a cattle car, then some people will either choose not to, or be unable to, reach their destination (job). If the jobs can’t be filled at that location, or if it is too expensive to do so, then they will move.

    Recently a friend told me he was interviewing for a new job. It turned out the job was not at the corporate offices where he interviewed, but at Skyline, which is hard to reach. He balked at the commute, and without hesitation the offer was increased by $5000.

    I think there is a limit to how much of that can go on. Besides, I think he may still reject the offer: it is just too hard, no matter what the price. For that kind of money, he could probably move, but I don’t think he will do that, either.

    Larry hit it on the head. “It’s so bad that both Metro and Roads don’t promise congestion relief – only that they will keep it from getting worse – and that’s more high hopes than any kind of reality.”

    I think he is right, there just isn’t any way out of this. Suppose you magically had a two trck metro system that actually provided service such that most of the area between stations was walkable. You wuld still have the problem at the terminal stations like Vienna: auto congestion and parking trying to get to the system.

    So, rather than have VRE and MARC competing with Metro by going downtown, why not design feeder lines from the ring cities, and let the ring cities become the satellite parking. These would operate with, at most, three stops.

    Or, you could just move the new jobs to where the people are coming from.

    I really think we have reached the point my airport consultant friend said. After a certain size, it just doesn’t make any sense to make them bigger: the infrastructure costs too much.

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “Isn’t any variable toll that controls the road for max throughput congestion pricing, no matter how the money is spent?”

    Yes.. if something I said implied otherwise.. I did not intend so.

    As a matter of equity though – I think a lot of discussion on dong sensible things like optimizing ramps, traffic signals, etc and so the proceeds from congestion pricing should go to these things FIRST.

    And at this point.. I’m still a little leery of diverting congestion pricing money to different modes though I would support using it for intermodal facilities.

  15. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “If we cant build more roads because of EPA restrictions, how can we build anything else either?”

    You CAN build roads but the following apply:

    1. – they cannot add to overall pollution levels and that will drive most of them to be HOV/HOT or some variant

    2. – they will be VERY expensive – because either you pay for high dollar real estate or you build ramps and/or tunnels. Any way you cut it, the costs will be on the order of 100 million per mile – and ironically in the same ball park as METRO expansion costs…

    APF – is about collecting money for facilities that will need to be built or upgraded if current levels of service or to be maintained and not allowed to deteriorate/degrade.

    I do NOT support stopping development because of inadequate infrastructure but rather fair and equitable charges to maintain ..

    .. but what happens when you don’t collect those fees and build the infrastructure – people want it to stop.

    And part of the problem as EMR points out – when you build “dumb” – it costs a whole lot more money for infrastructure than if you built smart.

    So localities build dumb.. and don’t collect adequate fees to mitigate the impacts.. and the result is that
    folks KNOW that more development will have bigger and nastier impacts that won’t be mitigated and so.. they’re forced into opposition and using any strategy that “stops” development.

    And this is my point.

    It’s not about what one thinks in their own mind as right or fair unless you’re also going to look at what the other side thinks is wrong and unfair – and if there are more of them than you – then guess what the outcome will be.

    There is no cheap way around this.

    If you want development – then the public is going to demand that it be done in a way that does not harm their way of life.

    If you ignore this.. or try to rationalize it from one’s own point of view – do so at one’s own peril – and good luck – and be ready for even more dysfunctional responses.

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