City Poll Shows Strengths and Weaknesses of Streets Repaving Bond

It’s Poll Week at Reset San Francisco, as we look at some of the interesting results of our latest Reset Survey. But we want to pause for a second to share another survey – one taken by the City of San Francisco itself.

Reset RevealedOne of our Reset Revealed correspondents sent in a poll paid for by the San Francisco MTA that was designed to test the strengths and weaknesses of the City’s Streets Repaving Bond that was just placed on the November ballot by the Board of Supervisors.

While the very idea of the City spending significant sums to take a poll about an election issue is controversial, the results themselves are interesting. Bottom line, the measure itself is popular with voters fed up about potholes and deteriorating streets – but is just at the threshold of the two-thirds level needed to pass a bond.

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San Francisco Voter Survey Results April 2011

Fed Up with San Francisco Potholes

The survey taken by the respected polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Metz and Partners shows the $248 million streets repaving bond supported by 66% of voters and opposed by 26% with the balance undecided.

The poll of 611 likely voters (you can read the whole document yourself here) starts by taking the temperature of voters, and finds that 54% of San Franciscans think the city is headed in the “right direction.” This number shows relative optimism, particularly considering the pretty sour mood of the American electorate at the moment.

The poll also asks voters to rank the seriousness of problems – and not surprisingly, voters show real concern about unemployment, waste and inefficiency in city government, and the deteriorating quality of local roads.

Reasons to Support the Street Repaving Bond

The poll is structured like a typical campaign survey (Fairbank, Maslin, Metz and Partners are top tier Democratic campaign pollsters) and lists a series of reasons for supporting the measure. You’ll see these reasons again as the city prepares “talking points” for the coming election. Virtually all of the reasons tested for support are good arguments with the voters – saving money by fixing the streets, addressing the shockingly high level of pedestrian deaths and the nice benefit that this bond does not raise taxes at all to be repaid, it simply takes an existing bond levy that is being retired and transfers it to the Streets Repaving 2011 Bond.

Reasons to Oppose the Street Repaving Bond

The pollsters then test a shorter series of arguments against the measure. In general, these don’t perform as well as the positive arguments – but voters are somewhat concerned with the idea that the city is using borrowing tactics to cover costs that should come out of the yearly budget. Others have pointed out before the questionable practice of borrowing long term for short-term capital investments like street repaving.

Concern over the Jefferson Street Project

One negative argument that does jump out, and a potential vulnerability the City is clearly watching, is a special “earmark” that seems to have made its way into this bond.

Here’s how the City puts it in their poll:

“At a time when the city is cutting funding for health care, education and emergency services, this measure would spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on a remodeling project in one tiny area of the City—Jefferson Street—in anticipation of the America’s Cup. The bond would devote more money to this project than to all other sidewalk, bridge and overpass improvements citywide.”

A total of 68% of the respondents (who were interviewed in both English and Chinese) found this argument a convincing reason to vote against the measure.

This is the first we’ve heard of this particular earmark – it did not seem to warrant much attention in the debate running up to the 8-3 board approval of the bond for November. We’ll take a closer look in the coming weeks.

It All Depends on How You Ask the Question

Many of us at Reset have taken a look at a fair number of polls and one of the things interesting in this poll is how they ask the “ballot question.” This is the brief strip the City Attorney prepares to describe the measure on your ballot – and it can make all the difference.

The last time a bond repaving measure was on the ballot in 2005, it failed by a significant margin. Here’s how the City Attorney described that measure, Proposition B in 2005:

Shall the City incur $208,000,000 of bonded indebtedness to finance street reconstruction, pavement renovation, disabled access curb ramp construction, sidewalk and street improvements, street structure rehabilitation and improvements, pedestrian safety street and signal improvements, street improvements for bicycle use and all other structures and improvements necessary or convenient for the foregoing purposes?

Now here’s the language the City tested in their recent poll:

“To fix potholes and repave deteriorating streets and reconstruct sidewalks in neighborhoods throughout San Francisco; improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists; improve MUNI reliability and traffic flow on local streets and intersections; repair and improve the safety of deteriorating bridges and staircases; and improve disabled access to sidewalks; shall San Francisco issue 248 million dollars in general obligation bonds, subject to independent oversight and regular audits?”

Clearly – the poll question is written quite favorably – adding the positive points about potholes, MUNI reliability and oversight and regular audits. We’ve yet to see if the City Attorney will change how he described a very similar measure in 2005 on the ballot to add the positive poll tested points to the official ballot title.

At the end of the poll, after the respondents hear both the positive and negative arguments, the approval rating goes up one point – with 67% supporting and 26% opposed. In a measure that requires two-thirds of the vote to pass that means the plan is right on the bubble. The city’s talented Department of Public Works director is quoted as saying it could be an uphill climb to pass the measure, an assessment that seems to be informed by these poll numbers.

Gov 2.0 and the Need for Good Data

Polls like this are bound to be controversial. Some opponents of the plan point out the seeming unfairness of the City spending tax dollars to figure out how to convince us to give them more tax money (or in this case, to allow them to keep some of our money since the pothole plan won’t raise taxes).

That’s a fair point – but here’s another important point. If we want government to be more effective and responsive, we need it to be more data driven. The government needs to hear through surveys like this what we think, what we need, what we are willing to pay for. So while the poll may be expensive, it probably isn’t nearly as expensive as the cost of a city government operating without good data.

As far as the measure itself – an informal poll of Resetters showed most of us for the measure. Sure – there are problems with spending long-term bond money to fix relatively short-term problems. And yes – we want to know what’s going on with that Jefferson Street project for the America’s Cup.

But something has got to be done about those potholes, and to make our streets less dangerous and to help keep MUNI running on time. So since this isn’t new money, just a repurposing of an existing bond that is retiring, seems like a good plan to most of us.

But more importantly – what do you think? Log in and weigh in below.


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Eric Jaye's picture

Another Pollster Weighs in on SF Streets Bond Plan

Text below is a direct quote from Melissa Griffin's Examiner column today. She seems to have pollster Pineda on speed dial. He makes some good points. 

Despite poll, city street repair bond faces rocky road


‘Knowing that we will, by November, have put forth other things that suggest very strongly that we’ve taken care of our financial house, then I know that the public will be prepared for this particular bond,” said Mayor Ed Lee as he proposed a $248 million bond for road repairs and upgrades. 

It was a remarkably cocksure statement in light of the fact that more than 66 percent of voters in November would have to endorse the bond. I’m fairly sure he was relying at least in part on a poll conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates that reportedly cost The City $29,000. For that amount, we got the results of telephone interviews with 611 San Franciscans who declared themselves probable voters in the November election. I got my grubby little hands on the poll results and showed it to some fancy consultants. 

Andre Pineda of Pineda Consulting is a pollster whose client list includes President Barack Obama. After reviewing the poll results, Pineda remarked, “It looks to me that the street repair measure will have a very, very tough time passing.” 

That’s because the overall 67 percent approval rating for the bond (which has been cheerily reported) is the sum of three numbers: 32 percent “Definitely yes,” 21 percent “Probably yes” and 14 percent “Undecided, lean yes.” With these numbers, “I wouldn’t say the measure is dead on arrival. But everything has to go right in order for it to win, including no organized opposition,” Pineda said. 

And the poll shows just how an opposition group could defeat the measure. The poll was designed not only to gauge what positive factors would bolster the chances of the bond passing — increased pedestrian safety and job creation top the list — but it also tests which negative factors would be most effective at defeating the measure. The statement that elicited the most powerful response — negative or positive — was the following: 

“At a time when The City is cutting funding for health care, education and emergency services, this measure would spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on a remodeling project in one tiny area of The City — Jefferson Street — in anticipation of the America’s Cup. The bond would devote more money to this project than to all other sidewalk, bridge and overpass improvements citywide.”

Forty-one percent of those who heard that found it a “very convincing” reason to oppose the measure. Observed Pineda, “In the hands of a good media consultant, negatives that get 40 percent are silver bullets.”

Indeed, I asked a good media consultant about the poll and he wrote, “I would set it up as a bond to benefit billionaire Larry Ellison, America’s Cup, and special interests.” 

According to the poll, if someone decides to do just that, it would pave the way for defeat of the bond in November.

Paid for by Phil Ting for Assembly 2012. FPPC ID# 1343137