On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with Richard Czuba, a veteran Michigan pollster and founder of the Glengariff Group.
A recent poll commissioned by his clients, The Detroit News and WDIV-TV, included some questions to measure Michigan voter perceptions of road conditions and repairs.
Among issues discussed:
As Czuba told the Detroit News when the poll was released: “It’s a perfect example of the voters aren’t stupid — they can actually make sense of what the issues are, who’s doing what.”
Jeff Cranson: Hello this is the talking Michigan Transportation podcast host Jeff Cranson with guest Richard Juba, who has been conducting survey research since 1983 and is the founder of the Glengarriff Group. He has extensive experience in political and policy campaigns, including the successful Michigan Stem Cell Balancer, Bosal in 2008 and 2012, a successful campaign to reform the state's personal property tax probably won't surprise you that, given all those years of polling in Michigan, he is gaining some knowledge about voter perceptions of roads. He recently conducted a poll for his clients, The Detroit News and WDITV, and included some questions specific to perceptions of road conditions and repairs. The results of the latest reminded me of our friend and former longtime Chief Circuit Judge in Kent County used to tell me about we in the media -and- I was in the media then; how we underestimate the body politic. Would that be your conclusion from this, Richard?
Richard Juba: Well, I've been polling on the roads issue more than any topic for the last 10 years and we are seeing some shifts in voter attitudes here in Michigan on roads. And the one thing that always strikes me when I do polling, no matter what the topic, voters aren't fools. When it comes to your policy positions, they can decipher through a lot of things, but one of the things they have a lot of trouble deciphering when it comes to roads is they don't get what I call the sausage making of it, who's responsible for which road? How does that road get repaired? Who funds it? Voters just don't know that level of detail. That's not uncommon. That's tends to be the case on most topics, but when it comes to roads, they think everybody's responsible for every road. Whether it's a highway or their local gravel road, they particularly think the state of Michigan's responsible for that, and that becomes quite a dilemma.
Cranson: Yeah, that's the thing about Michigan. We're somewhat unique in that we have 616 road agencies and I think that does make it more complicated. I always wonder what drives people's perceptions of road conditions. Is it mostly informed by how rough the pavement is on the street, where they live or is it the local arterial or the freeway they use to get to work? I guess that kind of goes to your question about the different road agencies and the public's lack of understanding about who does what and, it's not their fault. They shouldn't have to worry about who takes care of it. They just want it to be good, right?
Juba: Well, that's exactly right. And to answer your question, their perception of the roads is on exactly the roads they drive every day. So, if you're a highway driver, your perception is what the highways like? If you are a local driver primarily your perception, is what's that local road like going past your house or taking you to the grocery store. That's where we start to see real differences. I remember years ago we saw this stark difference. In how outstate voters viewed the roads versus Metro Detroit voters, and we still tend to see that difference where Metro Detroit voters are far more critical about the condition of the roads than out of state drivers are.
Cranson: Do you think that's because the city of Detroit and the suburbs, or just cash strapped and have a harder time taking care of the local roads. I mean, I know it's hard to say whether that's driven by their perceptions of their commutes on the freeways, which tend to be, in better condition overall in part because from a safety standpoint, you just can't let big potholes form, and where people are driving 80 miles an hour. So yeah, I noticed that too, that breakdown. And I wondered why that was and maybe because people just commute more, drive more in metro than in some other parts of the state.
Juba: Particularly in the northern part state they go longer distances, and they go on roads that allow them typically to go faster. The highways for example, unless you get up into the UP, it's a different story with a lot of two-lane roads. Down in Southeast Michigan, let's be honest, congestion and lots of road use wears and tears those roads a lot harder than they do in some of the northern areas of state. So, the bottom line though to all of this is voters all think the roads for years have thought the roads are terrible inn Michigan, we're starting to see indications in these latest polling that maybe that's shifting a little bit. Not by a lot, but I think voters are paying attention to the fact that they're seeing more roads getting fixed right now.
Cranson: Yes. So, were you able to drill down or what's your perception of whether that was them sensing that their road is actually better or that they're just seeing so much road work going on? I think they're seeing road work and that's specifically the way we asked this, we said: Would you say you're seeing more roads getting fixed? Less roads getting fixed or about the same roads getting fixed as in the past? And 48% of voters say they're seeing more roads getting fixed than in the past? 43% said about the same, but only 6% said less. I can tell you 10 years ago. If I would have asked that question a whole lot of people, a lot more people than 6% would have said there are less roads getting fixed than in the past. So, the fact that nearly half of voters are now willing to say there's more roads are getting fixed than in the past, is a realization on the part of these voters that something's getting done. And, for anybody who drives across the state of Michigan, I regularly do. You drive along I-94 from southwest Michigan to Detroit. It's hard to argue that more roads aren't getting fixed as you're driving through all those orange barrels. And let's face it, that's what changes people's perception is seeing those orange barrels.
Cranson: And it sounded like in your polling that people were surprisingly tolerant of that and willing to understand, because, I mean, it's every road agencies dilemma. How do you rebuild a road and protect the workers and the drivers while the work is going on and still work quickly and limit the inconvenience. There are indications, I think in your data that people understand that more than we think that the short term pain is going to be worth it.
Juba: Well, I can tell you and again, this is over years of polling. They were clamoring for roads to start getting fixed. I think every Michigander laughs at the fact that, there's construction in the summer and summer is clearly construction season in Michigan. They're willing to have to see those orange cones because they've been so desperate for those orange cones, they want their roads. That's not to say voters think roads are great right now, but there there's an optimism there that's starting to develop amongst the voters that something's getting done that roads are getting fixed, and that's a big shift in perceptions in Michigan.
Cranson: Yeah, that's a really good sign in that it does not coincide at all with what you see on the Facebook page. But again, that's not scientific by any means.
Juba: Well, this is something, as a pollster, I regularly tell organizations; is that you only hear from the people who are really angry. The people who like what you're doing and think you're doing great; they never tell you that because they're good with you. It's only those people who are angry that are going to comment about you, we asked this question; compared to 4 years ago, would you say the roads are better, worse or about the same? 39% said it's staying about the same. 35%, though, are saying they're getting better and only 24% now are saying they're getting worse. Again, if I had asked this question four years ago, six years ago, eight years ago, there would have been well over half of Michigan voters saying the roads are getting worse and now we're only at we're down to one in four. That's still not great. But boy, it's a lot better where we were. I think we all know from the conversations we've been hearing about roads over the last ten years, that is an accomplishment to again, people are starting to recognize that something's getting done.
Cranson: Yeah. No. And I totally agree with you about you hear from the people who are angry. It's nice, we have a great social media coordinator who is very patient and tries to answer nearly every question, every complaint but a lot of times plain old folks will jump into the defense and site some facts and try to set the record straight. But for the most part, there's no heat in the in the middle, right? The radical center everybody talks about doesn't exist because the edges are where the heat is-so.
Juba: Well, that's exactly right. You're going to get involved if you're good with things, you tend to be quiet about these things, particularly these days on social media. I think social media is an avenue for amplifying the edges of the conversation versus the center of the conversation.
Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. So, the demographic breakdowns. Very interesting to me. One thing that jumped out was the largest group to say the roads are better, where the people who are 65 and older and that age group more than 40% said the roads were getting better as opposed to 24% were answered worse in 27% saying about the same. That tells me that people who have been around longer and been driving Michigan roads longer than they take a long view and they really do think that, historically things are getting better is that is that your read?
Juba: Well, I do it. I think that's also a read of the fact that voters over 65 tend to drive less too. And I think we need to be very cognizant of that. As has been the case over the last 12 years, the roads become a political football and what we really see is that whoever the party in charge is. And in this case, it's Democrats, the Democratic governor is in charge. Democratic voters tend to think she's doing a far better job than Republicans. Republican voters are the most critical. And even if you ask; are they getting better, worse or staying the same? - those Republican voters tend to think that the roads are staying the same. And the Democratic voters say they're getting better. When you look at the independents, and that's what I always pay attention to in Michigan. Because I think they tell the story. There is a whole 48% say are seeing more. Roads getting fixed 45% say the same again, only 6% said less so even amongst these independents, these centrists. There's a sense that something's getting done here, and I think, that's the first step here in changing public perceptions on the roads in Michigan is just getting Michiganders to believe it's happening. Something's getting fixed.
Cranson: right. But it seems a little counterintuitive that that over 65 group. So positive about, road progress when those tend to be people who vote more Republican,
Juba: Well that's shifting; those over 65s aren't quite as strongly Republican as they used to be. It's an interesting demographic. We've seen shifts, particularly when the pandemic hit. So, you know, I want to be careful on that kind of assessment there.
Cranson: Yeah, that's interesting. So, what do you make of the gender divide? You know, my wife thinks it's because men drive faster, then they are more inclined to notice when pavement is in poor condition. But what would you attribute that too? Because it was significant.
Juba: I would attribute it to partisan affiliation. We are in an environment where women are vastly more self-identifying with the Democratic Party than men do, and so that would make men more, naturally more Republican and more critical of the current administration when it comes to roads. So, I think roads are like everything else in our competitions these days. Politics has infinite everything. Whether it be roads, which books we read. It doesn't matter. It's now tied to politics. That's that weird polarization we're seeing. This is an issue that just gets wrapped up with that. So, we look for signs of that polarization. Are there signs of hope that people can reach some consensus on this? One of the things we see, and this is all voters agree, something needs to be done. Voters wholeheartedly say the roads need to get fixed. We need to invest more. The problem becomes when you say, how do you pay for it? And this goes back to one of the things we find regularly; is voters don't understand how the roads get paid for in Michigan. They think it's all well, all those gas taxes and look, the prices of gas are going up. So clearly, they're getting more money. They haven't. There hasn't been this aggressive campaign to help voters understand that there isn't more money because roads are cars are far more fuel efficient. Now we have battery operated cars and I think one of the one of the real challenges here going forward on funding road repairs is helping voters to understand that the old formulas are outdated, that to change so much from when we did you put a gas tax on. That they need to understand that. But these old models aren't going to work in the future.
Cranson: Yeah absolutely. And that's why MDOT is in the midst of a legislatively mandated tolling study, as you know. And also, there's talk of undertaking either as part of that or separately, mileage based user fees, so even tolls may be in the past, when it comes to measuring, who pays for the roads and who should pay for the roads. I guess the gender divide I thought perhaps it was as simple as just partisanship, but I was hoping maybe there was more to it, but I think your analysis is probably right. You’ve been looking at this for a long time, I know that some of the critics of the bonding program, and I want you to talk a little bit about that because you polled specifically on that question say that the debt will run longer than the life of the roads and that's just not true. The reason that the projects that were chosen were complete rebuilds of major freeways was because they should last 30-40 years and go beyond the debt. So that's another misperception that we talked about thinking when gas prices go up, road funds must grow along with that, and they don't even understand that the 6% sales tax doesn't even go to roads. So yeah, talk about that, that polling question specifically on the bonding and what you found there and whether that surprised you at all.
Juba: Sure, we asked the question, whether they support or oppose Governor Whitmer's move to issue a 3.5 billion in new state debt to rebuild and repave the state-owned roads and by a margin, 64 to 28 voters support this move to bond. 32% strongly supported, only 17% strongly oppose it, and this is one where, voters can find some agreement on this. We've often seen in our polling that bonding is a popular alternative to raising taxes. In 40 years of polling in Michigan, I can honestly say, I have never seen a poll, a legitimate poll that showed voters supporting a gas tax increase. This is like one of the jokes of all of us pollsters in Michigan that there is not a poll that will show a support for gas tax, but bonding tends to find far more support. In this case, you look at those independents where again, this is where everything gets decided in Michigan is with independent voters. They supported by a margin of 59 to 30, which is a two to one margin. They think this is a good idea and I think it's a reflection of the fact that voters may not like tax increases. But they certainly realize something's got to get done and more money must be put into the roads. And I in this case, based on this question, they viewed bonding as a really good alternative to raising taxes. One of the things that we have always asked and looked at both in focus groups and in polling is, there is a group of voters that just simply don't understand where the money is going, and their first question is “they get plenty of money”.? And suddenly you’ve got these voters who suddenly become road building experts,
Cranson: Oh believe me.
Juba: Even sitting through a focus group, they think of themselves as the ones who are the experts building the roads. They cite Ohio and Florida, if we have the right mix of concrete for the weather and all these different things, they come up with reasons for why this isn’t right.
Cranson: What do they say when you tell them what those two states spend per capita versus Michigan?
Juba: Well, they just come back to frankly what I think is a simplistic answer. That, well, we're not spending our money correctly, right?
Juba: And you know it again becomes a political argument. And that's why you have the center. You're never going to get, any percent for something in Michigan State like Michigan. So, you have to look at those centers, those independents and see, can you form a coalition that, you know, you can get to 60% support in Michigan. And in this case, you do with this bonding proposal. And I think that's a big deal.
Cranson: We will continue the conversation right after a quick break.
MDOT safety moment:
[Actor 1 and Actor 2]
1: Oh, look at those beautiful wildflowers along the road. Aren't they pretty?
2: Check out that classic car. You don't see those anymore.
1: Wow, look at that cable median barrier.
2: What? You mean that wire guardrail in the road?
1: Exactly. They were put there to provide crossover, head-on crashes, which are some of the most deadly type of freeway crashes, and they're really effective reducing those types of incidents by 90%. That's a lot of lives that have been saved- huh?
2: I guess I never really looked at them like that. I prefer the wildflowers, but I'm seeing the median cable barriers in a whole new light.
Cranson: So put on your policy hat for a minute and think about this. Because it's something as a reporter writing about this and then assigning stories and writing columns and editorials over the years about road funding and across many administrations in Michigan; and having been in the department now for a decade, I've really come to believe that we need a public service commission model for roads because roads are a public utility and we don’t expect the legislature to keep the lights on. So, because you're right, you know you're not going to find especially in the term limited era, enough political courage to raise taxes for roads. So, what else could we do?
Juba: Well, I do think anything you can do to get it to take it out of the constant political give and take is beneficial to the roads. I don't know that everyone would agree that it's beneficial to the body politic, but it's beneficial to getting roads done and you know, part of this conversation goes on areas like economic development. You hear from economic developers saying, listen, we got to take this out of the conversation of who is the party in charge at the time we need this bipartisan economic development plan. And I think the same applies to roads. You need a bipartisan plan that, can be taken out of the day-to-day grind of the day-to-day politics. That becomes hard in Michigan because you have so many darn road organizations and everyone has their niche and everyone has their kind of, supporters, and it's hard to create unanimity when you have that many players in the field.
Cranson: Going to our point of the people in the voters maybe being smarter than we give them credit for if they realize that the reason, they support bonding is because they're not doing anything, just far more on the debt incurred. I mean we're losing, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in assets and bridges and roads and other transportation assets by not doing anything.
Juba: well, you know, I think for the voters, I think it becomes more basic than that and they realize how much more extra they've got to spend because their cars are getting destroyed on potholes. We particularly saw this in the polling about four or five years ago where voters just there wasn't a voter who wasn't offering a Horror Story about having to spend 5 or $600 to have something repaired on their car because they hit a pothole. We asked this question of who they thought was the most blamed for the condition of the roads in Michigan. And this is where I go back to-the voters aren't fools and I was surprised, and yet I should not have been, but the number one answer was past legislatures and past governors at 31%. Voters realize that the roads of today are largely due to what we did in the past with how they were funded in the past and so I think moving forward-looking at that moving forward, if voters are seeing more roads getting built and fixed and repaved that in the future, we're going to start to see that, voters’ attitudes are going to start to change on this. It's really simple. The more roads you repair, the better voters start to feel about that because they drive them and see them every single day.
Cranson: Yeah, that is a really good point but, in a term, limited era somebody who’s willing to take that tough vote won’t be around to see the fruits of that tough vote.
Juba: Well, that's right. That’s why I think the more you can do to take this whole conversation out of the day-to-day political grind, the better off it is for getting roads done, you know Getting them fixed, whether that's possible. Whatever party is in power compared to whatever party is out of power is going to have objections to that because they lose control, or they gain control. I've always been a big proponent when it comes to any policy that a bipartisan policy tends to be far sounder and more stable in the long term than one parties policy.
Cranson: Amen to that. I completely agree. Oh, Richard. Anything else have been covered that you thought was just particularly interesting in your data? I mean, my goodness. The cross tabs are very informative
Juba: This is a topic that again I'm starting to see. I hesitate to say it. Perhaps some light at the end of the tunnel we've been talking about this for so darn long in Michigan. It'll be interesting to watch this moving forward in the next few years if voters start to become more optimistic and recognized changes taking place. I think the challenge is going to be on those local roads far more than state roads, where we're seeing a whole lot of money pouring into state roads because of the bonding proposal, the bonding debt. How do state and local roads get handled and do voters start to see changes in those roads? I think that’s the question going forward.
Cranson: You know I think it’s important to note that the locals have some bonding authority and they also can pass their own millages and income taxes. The city of Grand Rapids, where I live, in 2014 passed an income tax for streets and it passed overwhelmingly. A long time anti tax proponent from the West side. Former school board member you know showed up at a public meeting to endorse the roads tax. And said, you know, we have to do something and it's easier at the local level, but at the state level usually.
Juba: It sure is, and one of the things we see regularly in the polling and it not only about roads but schools is a good example, also. Voters are highly skeptical of increases at the state level because they think it's going to go to somebody else. West Michigan voters think it's going to Detroit. Detroit voters think it's going UP, and so there's a real skepticism. The more that we stay locally. And we decided locally, the more support it's going to get from local voters.
Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. That that perception to in West Michigan is so true, you know, despite the fact. With the last freeway built in the state, M-6 was built in West Michigan. You know the Cadillac bypass. What's going on with US31 about to open that long sought extension of the freeway in Southwest Michigan that Constantine bypass? I mean, I can go on and on about the major new things in West Michigan as opposed to the rest of the state. That perception is still there.
Juba: Yeah, I have a farm very close to that. US 31 bypass and all my life I grew up on that farm all of my life. We've been talking about that highway, and it's finally going to get done.
Cranson: Are you talking about the? Yeah, one up in Benton Harbor go with 94 and 96 and 31. Here we are. We're on the verge of it opening
Cranson: we're very close to A to a major celebration there. People are going to be allowed to walk or run or, you know, like on the on the freeway before it opens. So it should be a big day.
Juba: Yeah. Long time coming. Yeah.
Cranson: Well, thank you again, Richard. I really appreciate you taking time to talk about this. Some fascinating. Findings in your in your data and. No, I always appreciate your polling and your ability to analyze it and break it down first.
Juba: It's great to be with you.
Cranson: Again, this week, we had Richard Juba and mentioned next week in a Part 2 to this topic I'll be speaking with Susan Howard, who is the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials, director of Policy and Government relations, has spoken with Susan before about funding and all the things going on at the national level and the policies related to that.
I also want to thank Randy Debler for his work producing this week's podcast Jesse Ball and that social media coordinator who proofreads the show notes and helps with all kinds of things related to getting this done every week and Courtney Bates who does a great job putting the podcast together on format so it can posted and Sarah Koenigsknecht in our office, who also helps with the production and the transcription of the podcast.