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As the Utah Transit Authority board heard this week that a poll it commissioned shows two-thirds of residents have a favorable impression of the agency, a board member asked why the same pollster found much different results for a news media client.
Dan Jones & Associates found that 68 percent reported favorable impressions of UTA in a poll it did for the agency in February. But a poll it did for UtahPolicy.com in December 2015 found 50 percent approved of UTA's performance.
Also, the survey for UTA said 16 percent have unfavorable impressions of the agency, compared with 36 percent found in the UtahPolicy poll.
"I mean no disrespect, but I have some serious questions about that. Which one is more reliable?" asked Brent Taylor, who often acts as a rabble-rouser on the board. He noted that in the UtahPolicy poll, "the unfavorability rating was more than double, and the favorability rating was much lower."
Taylor wanted explanations to ensure UTA isn't designing questions to make it look like people approve of the agency more than they actually do.
So officials from Dan Jones and R&R Partners, UTA's advertising agency that helped design its annual poll, explained to the board Wednesday that the surveys asked slightly different questions of different audiences at different times, and tell different stories.
Bob Henrie, a partner in R&R and one of Gov. Gary Herbert's closest political advisers, said UTA's poll asked about impressions of the agency, while the UtahPolicy one asked what people think of the agency's performance.
"One is a job performance question, and one is a goodwill question," he said. It's akin to asking "if someone likes you, and they say yes. If you ask if you are doing a good job, you may not get the same favorability as you did on your likeability."
So why do a likeability question instead of one on favorability?
"Favorability over time is really the measure of your stock, your capital account, your goodwill," Henrie said. "As you go through years building up goodwill and people have a more favorable impression, then they are more inclined to be rider or a taxpayer who would support what you are doing."
He noted the UTA poll also asked questions about how well the agency is doing in specific areas, such as bus, TRAX and FrontRunner service, and such things as cleanliness and on-time service. It did not ask about overall job performance.
Kjersten Adams, an associate with Dan Jones, noted several other differences in the polls that could yield different results. For example, the UtahPolicy poll surveyed likely voters statewide, while the UTA poll talked to residents (including those not likely to vote) along Wasatch Front areas served by the agency.
Taylor suggested that, in the future, UTA also ask some questions of just likely voters. "For me, the most important survey is whether voters are willing to trust us with our tax dollars."
In 2015, voters in Salt Lake, Utah and Box Elder counties rejected Proposition 1 that sought to raise taxes for transportation, and most officials blamed that on opposition to UTA which had been involved in scandals over high pay and bonuses, extensive travel and sweetheart deals with developers. Davis, Weber and Tooele counties approved Prop 1.
UTA Board Chairman Robert McKinley noted the two polls were conducted more than a year apart. He said the earlier UtahPolicy survey came "at a time when UTA was bearing the brunt of a lot of negative publicity. I would have expected the negative percentage to be a lot higher than it was."
UTA officials said the second poll conducted for it may reflect greater goodwill from reforms that the agency put in place.
Both polls were conducted before an announcement in April that UTA has been under federal investigation, and made a deal to avoid prosecution by helping in a criminal probe of former officials and board members. The agency also agreed to be subject to federal oversight for three years.