Feb. 7, 2017 04:15 PM
Citizens gather at a recent "Y-49?" public meeting, which featured loud objection to the legacy interstate project.
Photo by Robin May

[Editor's Note: This story was updated and expanded for the February-March print issue of ABiz. The story below is the updated version.]

Local I-49 South booster coalition Connect Lafayette claims its poll of parish voters, published in early February, shows “overwhelming support” for the interstate’s completion through Lafayette via the Lafayette Connector. However, the poll’s land-line-only methodology has been shown to disproportionately sample older white voters, potentially undermining Connect Lafayette’s central claim of universal support for the project.

The poll was released in tandem with a public relations push for the Connector, including television and web ads and the launching of the Connect Lafayette coalition itself, during a relatively quiet phase in design activities.

Connect Lafayette launched in January to demonstrate diverse support for the project, boasting a roster of civic groups that includes the Senior Pastoral Alliance, an organization of prominent black church leaders.

“This is an important time for people to voice their support for the project, particularly because there’s a small vocal opposition that’s showing up,” says One Acadiana CEO Jason El Koubi. “And even more importantly because we’re going to soon move into a phase where we’re going to have to fully finance the project.”

Vermilion Marketing and Opinion Research conducted the poll by robo-calling land lines owned by registered voters who have voted in the last five years, producing 1,000 survey responses. One Acadiana, which is the principal driver of the Connect Lafayette coalition, funded the poll and supplied the database to Vermilion. One Acadiana representatives say they chose a land line survey because it is faster and cheaper to produce.

Researchers say land line polls have become less and less reliable as more and more people disconnect home phone service in favor of a mobile-only lifestyle. Roughly half of Americans do not use land lines, according to the Pew Research Center, and the cohort that does is whiter and older than the general population. Pew research shows that 82 percent of land line survey respondents are white, and 41 percent are age 65 and older. By contrast, according to the most recent census, Lafayette Parish is 70 percent white, and 10 percent are age 65 and older.

By restricting the poll to a land-line-only survey of registered voters, Connect Lafayette is showing that the Connector receives “overwhelming support” by what could be a disproportionately older and whiter population than actually exists in Lafayette Parish. That may not be the case, but 1A acknowledges it does not have demographic information or the margin of error for the poll.

Proponents have buoyed the project’s image with a steady promotion campaign since design work resumed on the legacy interstate project in late 2015, in an effort to head off the opposition the project has faced over its 25-year history.

In 1992, 200 people showed up to a public meeting, reportedly hollering opposition. The state subsequently halted the project for four years. The 2003 Record of Decision, currently under a re-evaluation process, toted 600 letters of opposition and a 2,000- name petition when it was filed with the federal government. A resurgence of grass roots opposition organized by the Sierra Club outgrowth “Y49?” has squared off with the Connector’s boosters, many of whom are longtime supporters.

One Acadiana released a similar poll with similarly positive results this time last year, and used a similarly favorable Likert scale layout to query respondents. Participants were given the option of indicating that they thought completing the Connector is “very important,” “important,” “neutral,” “unimportant” or “very unimportant” in the poll’s first of three questions.

The second and third questions, which ask whether the Connector would be an improvement, indicate that around 30 percent of respondents are at least unsure that the Connector would better conditions in the Evangeline Corridor.

Respondents were not afforded a chance to register opposition to the project outright.

Leaving aside that this was a parishwide poll, meaning that most respondents likely won’t have to live within the Connector’s immediate blast radius, a scaling and poll design like this is problematic and vague.

It doesn’t necessarily stand to reason that believing the project to be “important” is the same as believing it to be a good thing to do. Consider that more people say completing I-49 South is “important” (roughly 85 percent) than say that an elevated interstate would be an improvement over the current state of the Evangeline Thruway corridor (67.5 percent). Even if you disagree with that take, the question design leaves little opportunity to voice opposition, other than to suggest that the interstate won’t improve conditions in its right of way.

It could very well be that, by and large, Lafayette city and parish citizens support the Connector. But that’s not necessarily demonstrated by this poll.

El Koubi insists otherwise. “At the end of the day, this project involves a choice about how to move our community forward, and will ultimately involve a choice about how to spend limited public resources,” El Koubi says. “In that context, it’s important to state that a very strong majority supports this project and believes that it will be an improvement on the status quo. In my mind, that’s just undeniable. And I think the poll results support that.”


Poll results from Connect Lafayette:

Question 1: The completion of I-49 South from Shreveport through Lafayette all the way to New Orleans has been discussed for over 25 years. How important is the completion of I-49 South through Lafayette to the future of Lafayette Parish?
84.6 percent of respondents rated the completion of I-49 through Lafayette as “very important” or “important,” and only 5.6 percent rated it “unimportant” or “very unimportant.” The remaining 9.8 percent were neutral or didn’t know.

Question 2: In your opinion, do you think that replacing the Evangeline Thruway, U.S. 90 through Lafayette with a new, elevated interstate highway would be an improvement over the condition of the Thruway as it exists today?
67.5 percent felt replacing the Evangeline Thruway/U.S. 90 through Lafayette with a new elevated interstate highway would be an improvement over the condition of the Thruway as it exists today. 20.9 percent said it would not be an improvement. 11.7 percent said they don’t know.

Question 3: Regardless of a specific design, do you think replacing the Evangeline Thruway, U.S. 90 through Lafayette with a new interstate highway would be an improvement over the condition of the Thruway as it exists today?
70.8 percent felt replacing the Evangeline Thruway/U.S. 90 through Lafayette with a new interstate highway, regardless of design, would be an improvement over the condition of the Thruway as it exists today. 15 percent said it would not be an improvement. 14.3 percent said they don’t know.

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