The tide of public opinion is running strongly against Honolulu’s proposed rail project, according to a new Civil Beat poll.

Fifty-five percent of likely voters say they oppose the project, with just 34 percent in favor, the poll found. The rest either don’t have an opinion or aren’t sure what they think.

The automated telephone survey of 1,172 likely voters on Oahu was conducted on Feb. 26 and 27, more than a month after former Gov. Ben Cayetano jumped into the Honolulu mayor’s race, turning the contest into a referendum on rail. He has vowed to kill the $5.2 billion project.

The Federal Transit Administration has said $1.55 billion in funding the city is counting on to build the 20-mile rail line would be in jeopardy if it doesn’t have a partner to build the project.

The Civil Beat Poll found that supporters face an uphill fight.

The poll has a margin of error of +/- 2.9 percent1. It should be noted that this wasn’t a survey of all adults on Oahu or of registered voters. A Hawaii News Now/Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll conducted in late January and early February found that 53 percent of registered voters wanted the project stopped. That poll had a margin of error of +/- 4.2 percent.

In Hawaii, voter turnout is low, with just 57 percent of registered voters casting their ballots in the 2010 general election.

Cost the No. 1 Concern

The public’s main concern about rail is cost. Fifty-nine percent of likely voters said they are “very concerned” that the rail project is too expensive, with another 21 percent somewhat concerned. Construction of the project is scheduled to be funded by a half-percent surcharge on the GET and federal grants. Operational support would come from the fare box and a subsidy from city taxpayers.

Opponents like Cayetano have pointed to federal studies that show the extent of cost overruns on other rail projects. Supporters have said that the financial plan is “sound,” pointing out that it includes a large contingency fund, that revenues are running ahead of projections and that half the contracts have already been let at a lower-than-projected cost.

But supporters’ arguments seem to be falling on deaf ears.

When asked to choose from a list of possibile issues that might concern them most about the rail project, 29 percent of voters selected cost.

The No. 2 concern was that rail will not help fix Honolulu’s traffic congestion problems, with 23 percent picking it.

Nineteen percent of voters said they weren’t particularly concerned about any aspect of the project, with another 6 percent unsure.

The biggest concern of 11 percent of voters was that not enough people would use the rail line.

Nine percent said they were most concerned that rail would damage Oahu’s natural beauty and landscape, with 3 percent saying that disturbing Native Hawaiian burials is their biggest concern.

The Civil Beat Poll didn’t just ask what, if anything, concerned voters the most about rail. It also asked voters about their level of concern about specific issues.

This approach reinforced how negatively the project is viewed. As already noted, 80 percent of voters said they were concerned about cost. But the survey also found big negative numbers for rail’s impact on beauty, projected use of the system and its impact on Native Hawaiian burials.

Concerns Run High and Deep

Sixty-nine percent of likely voters said they were concerned about the rail line’s impact on Oahu’s natural beauty, versus just 26 percent who weren’t concerned.

Seventy-three percent said they were concerned not enough people would use the line if it is built, with just 21 percent not concerned.

Fifty-six percent said they were concerned that the project will disturb Native Hawaiian burials, with 37 percent saying they weren’t concerned.

It might seem likely that voters served by rail would be more likely to support it than those who live away from the line. But that’s not what the survey found.2

Support and opposition is about the same, whether voters live in ZIP codes served by rail or not. Fifty-four percent of voters who do not live in the rail corridor oppose the project, while 34 percent support it. Fifty-six percent of voters who live in the rail corridor oppose the project, and 33 percent oppose it. The gap between the groups is within the poll’s margin of error.

More than half of voters said they’ll never use the line, 54 percent, with just 12 percent saying they would use it often. Thirty percent said they would use it “once in a while.”

Those numbers weren’t that far off from their current use of TheBus, with 50 percent saying they never ride the bus, 36 percent saying they ride it once in a while and 13 percent saying they often use buses.

Possible use of the train does affect support for the project. Of those who expect to ride it often, 89 percent back the project and just 6 percent oppose it. Of those who figure they’ll ride it once in a while, 60 percent support the project.

Another way to look at it is that 85 percent of rail supporters think they’ll ride the rail at least once in a while, while 80 percent of opponents say they’ll never ride.

Basically, if voters think they’re going to ride the rail, they support it. But if they don’t, they’re opposed.

Rail opponents have argued that most rail riders will be people who already ride the bus. The poll found that to be largely true. Sixty-one percent of those who say they will ride rail often or once in a while also say they already ride the bus often or once in a while. But the poll indicates that rail will attract many new transit users. Thirty-seven percent of those who say they will ride rail do not use the bus at all.

The Demographics of Opposition

But a problem for backers is that so many voters think they’ll never use rail. Of that group, 82 percent oppose the train.

Not one age bracket supports the project. A majority of voters over the age of 40 are against it, with 63 percent of those 40-49, 54 percent of those 50-64 and 56 percent of those over 65 lined up against it.

The only group with a significant percentage unsure of their position is voters between the ages of 18 and 29, 20 percent of whom are unsure. But even in that group, 47 percent oppose the project, and just 30 percent support it.

An equal percentage of men and women opposes the project, 54 percent of men and 55 percent of women.

Democrats are most likely to support the project, with 39 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed. Republicans and independents are aligned in their positions, with about 64 percent opposed and 28 percent in favor.

As might be expected given where Democrats stand, 41 percent of voters who identified themselves as liberal or progressive support rail, while 44 percent oppose it, essentially a tie given the poll’s margin of error. Just 26 percent of conservative voters support the project, while 68 percent oppose it.

No ethnic group has a majority that supports rail, with Japanese voters most likely to support it at 42 percent. The most opposed are Chinese, at 65 percent, and Native Hawaiians, at 62 percent.

Support for rail does increase with educational attainment, with voters with a graduate degree most likely to back the project. But even then, just 37 percent of voters with graduate degrees line up behind rail. Fifty-four percent oppose it.

The same trend applies to household income, with households with incomes of more than $100,000 the most likely to support the project, at 38 percent. But 55 percent of that group still opposes rail.

It appears that the people who are more likely to back rail — educated, wealthier Democrats — aren’t any more likely to ride the system than any other group.

Opposition to Rail an Opportunity for Cayetano

The poll shows why this will be the third and most important election for rail.

The public has voted twice on rail. In 2008, by a narrow margin it gave the city the power to build a “steel wheel on steel rail transit system.” In 2010, voters approved creation of a transit authority “responsible for the planning, construction, operation, maintenance, and expansion of the City’s fixed guideway mass transit system.” The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation was formed last July. Its first CEO was appointed last week.

The challenge for proponents of the project — both of Cayetano’s opponents, Mayor Peter Carlisle and former Acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell, support it — will be that it’s more difficult to create a positive impression of a project that is already viewed negatively than it would be to tear down a project that is viewed positively.

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