Was Survey a Game-Changer on Metrorail?
Surveys can influence the decision-making process by unveiling public opinion on key issues.
Of all the numbers that emerged from Loudoun County’s recent survey of residents, one loomed larger than all the others – 78.
That is the percentage of residents who said it was important for the county to focus on providing rail transit service in the next few years. This surprisingly high percentage may have been a game-changer in the recent debate leading up to the Board of Supervisors’ narrow approval of the Metrorail extension into Loudoun County.
Last week I gave some background on the history of the county’s public opinion survey. From 1995 to 2007, the county conducted a biennial survey that gathered demographic information in addition to the opinions of a random sample of 1,000 Loudoun residents.
Funding for the survey was cut from the budget after the 2007 survey. I do not think it was a coincidence that the survey was resurrected in time to influence the decision-making process on the issue of Metrorail – possibly the board’s most significant decision in decades.
The Center for Survey Research (CSR) at the University of Virginia conducted the survey under contract with the county. It carried out most of the interviews from May 8 to June 3 and released its preliminary results on June 18 – a remarkably quick turnaround. It is telling that CSR released the preliminary survey results at a Board of Supervisors meeting on the Metrorail issue.
According to the preliminary report, residents were asked how important it was for the county to focus on transportation issues such as commuter bus service, local bus service and rail transit. About 55.5 percent of respondents said rail transit was very important, and 22.7 percent said it was somewhat important, for a total of 78.2 percent in the “important” column, including sizable majorities in both rural and suburban parts of the county.
The debate on Metrorail changed dramatically after the announcement that about 78 percent of survey respondents favored rail transit. Until then the public debate seemed to be relatively evenly balanced between rail supporters, led by the business community, and a group of very vocal opponents.
At that time, it was not at all clear whether Board Chairman Scott York would be able to garner the necessary five votes to approve the project. York, Ralph Buona and Shawn Williams were supporters, and Matt Letourneau appeared to be leaning in favor. But the other five supervisors had few if any good things to say about the project, and some were openly opposed to it.
The fact that 78 percent of survey respondents said they supported rail transit changed the momentum of the debate and put rail opponents on the defensive. Board watchers tried to guess how the different supervisors might vote on the issue, and it appeared from time to time that Ken Reid, Suzanne Volpe, Janet Clarke or Geary Higgins might vote in favor of the project. Only Eugene Delgaudio was a certain “no” vote.
As we now know, only Reid joined the other four rail supporters to approve the project, and only he knows the reasons for his vote.
Reid had long been an opponent of rail transit, and his vote to approve the project surprised many observers. Reid came under fire from rail opponents who said he betrayed them. His explanation for his vote, as reported by Tom Jackman of the Washington Post, focused on the planned creation of tax districts that would cover the county’s operation and maintenance costs.
But that does not explain why a rail opponent would vote in favor of the project unless there was another compelling reason to do so.
Was Reid influenced by the survey results? Again, only he knows. But I don’t think he got where he is by ignoring popular sentiment. In this case, the number 78 would have been a powerful motivation for him to vote in favor of the project. And I respect his decision to do so.
I also wonder what some of the rail opponents, like Clarke or Volpe, would have done if Reid had announced that he would vote “no.” It might have been much for difficult for either of them to cast the deciding vote to kill the project.
York has served on the board long enough to know the importance of gauging public opinion in making decisions on key issues. To the extent that he was behind the decision to resurrect the survey, he deserves credit for exerting quiet leadership in rounding up five votes for Metrorail.