You probably pulled a weekly newspaper out of your mailbox this weekend with a similar headline, but like every survey the answer depends on the question.
Opposition to the I77 toll project has been sustained and extraordinary: this month the NCDOT received a staggering 1,668 universally negative comments on the project in response to the Mercator report. Last month over 300 people packed the Charles Mack center in Mooresville to hear Widen I77’s take on the project. Back in 2015 over ten thousand people signed an anti-toll petition begging the Charlotte city council to kibosh the project. The protest rally on the exit 28 bridge has become an annual event. And so on.
So how could a majority of the public favor tolling I77?
I first ran across this confounding result back in 2013, when the consultants and pro-toll politicians were touting the survey results as proof the public “wants” toll lanes.
I did a little digging.
Back in 2007 the Charlotte DOT, SCDOT and NCDOT commissioned a multi-year study on the viability of adding toll lanes to “help manage congestion during peak travel periods.” The “Fast Lanes” study was performed three phases, with the final report published in 2012. It identified the I77 corridor in North Meck as the most promising.
To “take the temperature” of public acceptance for tolling, they also conducted a phone survey of over 900 area residents. The results was the “56% favor toll lanes” conclusion:
2012, you may recall, was when Widen I77 first appeared on the scene. Prior to that pockets of opposition had been mounting, but every town board, mayor and state representative in the region still favored I77 tolls. With signs of resistance beginning to surface, however, pro-tollers needed proof that public sentiment was on their side.
That survey result came in handy at a contentious MUMPO meeting in May 2013. (MUMPO was the predecessor to CRTPO.) MUMPO was scheduled to vote for the private toll project that evening. After Chairwoman Sarah McAulay shut down any public comment on the topic, the forty or so citizens in attendance erupted in displeasure.
After the hubbub subsided, Huntersville Transportation Director Bill Coxe trotted out the survey results “proving” the public really wanted toll lanes “now” instead of waiting twenty years. Thus, the citizens present were just a small, disgruntled mob.
But did it really prove anything?
The survey question was this:
“If given a choice of getting the (express) toll lanes now or having some additional enhancement at some undetermined time in the future, which would you prefer?”
The question, of course, is deceptive on several levels.
First, it uses the term “express toll lanes”. How is this different from regular toll lanes? Is it better because it is “express”?
Second, it makes no mention of anticipated toll rates. Remember, this was before the public learned of estimated peak rates upwards of $1/mile. Also, it makes no mention of a private foreign company, or of freeway widening non-competes. Or of “congestion pricing.” Or of 50 year contracts.
Third, it holds out the false promise of express toll lanes “now.” As it turns out, the project will not be operational until at least six years after the survey was taken, more than enough time to propose and build a general purpose lane project.
Fourth, it offers no credible alternative. An “additional enhancement” could be anything from a bicycle lane at Exit 28 to a pair of general purpose lanes all the way to Mooresville. The question is deceptively and deliberately vague.
Fifth, it offers no timeframe for the alternative improvement. “Some undetermined time in the future” could be fifty months or fifty years. An honest attempt at gauging public acceptance would have at least proposed a timeframe, or better yet multiple ones. For instance, the question could have asked if the public was willing to wait 5, 10, 15 or 20 years. This would have generated a meaningful response.
So this “survey” was little more than a contrivance to generate the desired response.
Now you know.
The publication has since written an online correction to their story.