The primary election is about five months away, and the controversial Honolulu rail project is as unpopular as it’s ever been.

The Civil Beat Poll revealed Monday that 55 percent of likely Honolulu voters oppose the project, versus 34 percent in favor. But political observers say that despite the opposition, rail is far from dead.

“The first thing is what’s not going to happen. This is not going to stop it in any short-term kind of way,” retired University of Hawaii political science professor Neal Milner told Civil Beat Monday.

There’s no rail referendum on the ballot this year, and nothing on the horizon that’s going to change that, he said.

“What is most likely to happen is that this will just intensify the anti-rail part of the campaign for mayor,” Milner said.

Former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano has made his opposition to rail a central plank of his platform, though he insists he’s not a one-issue candidate.

That makes the Aug. 11 primary a key target for supporters if they want to turn public opinion in their favor. So what do proponents need to do to convince voters that rail is worth doing?

Matt Fitch is executive director of Merriman River Group, a public opinion firm that consulted Civil Beat on the poll. He said the survey is “a snapshot in time” and that voters very well might change their minds before Election Day.

“The smaller the race, the more local the race, the more people make up their mind in the last two or three weeks,” he said. “There is probably a decent chunk of voters that can be persuaded otherwise.”

He said the number of undecided voters is generally underestimated in polls because people who are “chronically unsure” are even less likely to participate in a phone survey than they are to vote in an election. All those undecideds and even some of the opponents might be overwhelmed right now by the negative information they’ve heard about the proposed system.

“I think that before something exists, the whole discussion is framed on what is it going to cost us, and the benefits are a little less tangible, harder to imagine,” Fitch said.

The Civil Beat Poll showed that rail’s cost gives voters the most anxiety, with 80 percent of those surveyed either very concerned or somewhat concerned about that issue. Fitch suggested that proponents should break down the cost into a long-term cost-per-household or cost-per-resident figure that would be “a little bit less of a daunting number” than the $5.2 billion estimated by the city for construction. There are other steps rail backers can take, as well.

“People who are in favor of rail need to convince the people who are going to use rail that this is going to work better than the bus,” he said. “And on the other hand, they need to convince the people who aren’t going to use rail that this is going to benefit them medium-term with less traffic and long-term with less pollution.”

So far, they’ve succeeded somewhat on the first task, but not much at all on the second. The Civil Beat Poll found that of those who expect to ride rail often, 89 percent back the project and just 6 percent oppose it. Of those who say they’ll ride rail occasionally, 60 percent support the project.

In all, 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.

Milner said pro-rail forces have struggled to impress the importance of the system onto those who won’t use it.

“An enormous number of people are saying it’s not relevant in my life at all,” he said. “It’s essentially an issue that the pro-rail people don’t know how to handle very much.”

He characterized efforts over the past year as a “containment strategy” and said he can’t envision an action or series of actions that would turn the tide of public opinion around.

But that might not be necessary to make rail happen.

“It’s not going to affect the movement that the City and County is doing toward getting rail started. … And I don’t think it’s going to affect the likelihood of getting federal money,” Milner said.

“All of that aloha for the system is leaking,” he said. “The anti-rail people have the momentum here, but the fact that it’s still moving forward, you have a new executive director, and money coming in. The pro-rail folks might just try to bluff their way through it.”

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