Majority of Public Opposes Milwaukee-to-Madison Rail Project

November 21, 2010


Residents also show misunderstanding of budget issues in state

A majority of Wisconsinites polled between Nov. 15 and Nov. 17 oppose the Milwaukee-to-Madison rail project, and opposition grows slightly as respondents learn more about it, according to a poll sponsored by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

Slightly over half of respondents (52 percent) expressed opposition and 35 percent expressed support when asked if “Wisconsin should go ahead with the Madison-to-Milwaukee passenger rail project.”

In a separate question, respondents were presented with two different arguments and asked which one came closest to their point of view.

Thirty-six percent sided with the argument stating that “supporters of the passenger rail project say that it is an important addition to the transportation system in Wisconsin and is being paid for by 800 million dollars in federal money. They (supporters) also say that the project will create jobs and that if Wisconsin does not go forward with the project, the money will be redirected to other states.”

Fifty-eight percent sided with the argument that “opponents of the project say that what we need is better roads and that the federal money for the train will not cover the inevitable cost overruns. They (opponents) also say that the project will only create a handful of permanent jobs and that the train would not have enough ridership to pay for its annual operating costs.”

The survey of 615 randomly selected Wisconsin adults conforms in full with the
disclosure requirements of the American Association of Public Opinion Research
(AAPOR) Code of Professional Ethics and Practice and the AAPOR Transparency
Initiative. It included cell phone-users and was directed by Ken Goldstein, a UW-Madison political science professor. Goldstein has worked on national network election night coverage in every U.S. federal election since 1988, and is also the co-founder and director of the Big Ten Battleground Poll.

“High speed rail breaks down along partisan lines,” said Goldstein. “In the initial question, a slim majority of Democrats supported the train project, but over 75 percent of Republicans opposed it. A plurality of independents also opposed the project, though they were much more split than the Republicans.”

After receiving more information about the project, Republicans remained overwhelmingly opposed to building the train line and Democrats and independents also became less supportive, according to Goldstein. A majority of independents opposed the train project after being exposed to more information, and the Democrats became evenly split on the issue.

“There is also a geographic component of public opinion on the train issue,” he said. “People in the city of Milwaukee and the Madison media market were much more supportive of building the train line than those in the rest of the state.”

The survey also asked a wide variety of questions about policy and budget issues, as well as attitudes about Wisconsin’s quality of life, economy and state government.

While debate over the train has dominated the headlines in recent days, it is of far less importance to Wisconsinites than many other issues. Asked what they think the top priority of the governor and state legislature should be, only one percent said stopping the building of the train and only another one percent said encouraging the building of the train. Almost half (49 percent) said improving the state’s economy and protecting jobs.

Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of Wisconsinites remain convinced that Wisconsin is on the wrong track versus 27 percent who believe the state is heading in the right direction. Over half (51 percent) say state government wastes a lot of the money we pay in taxes and another 45 percent say state government wastes some of the money. Almost half (48 percent) say state government is too big while 19 percent say it is too small.

Interviewers also focused on budget issues and, after telling respondents five of the largest spending categories, asked them to name the largest. Thirty percent thought it was Medicaid for lower income households and only 21 percent said K-12 public education.

“The difficulty of Governor–elect Walker’s task of presenting a balanced budget to the citizens is compounded by the public’s relative lack of familiarity with the makeup of state spending,” said George Lightbourn, president of WPRI. “Seventy-nine percent of the respondents didn’t know that state support for K-12 schools is the largest spending category in the state budget. K-12 spending constitutes 37% of the budget and dwarfs the next largest category, Medical Assistance – which accounts for 9.3% of state spending.  Clearly, the Governor-elect will need to educate the public about where state government spends its money.”

Respondents were asked to name the areas they would most like to protect from spending cuts. Four out of ten (40 percent) said K-12 public education. Asked to name one area they would least want to protect from cuts, 31 percent said transportation.

Respondents were also asked about open-road tolling in which collections would automatically be deducted electronically along Wisconsin’s interstate highways. Fifty percent said they are somewhat or completely opposed while 36 percent said they are somewhat or completely in favor.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. The margin of error will be higher for sub-group analysis.

WPRI – a nonpartisan, not-for-profit think tank – has been conducting surveys on politics and issues for more than 20 years and is now commissioning Goldstein to independently conduct polls on a periodic basis.