The more you explain congestion pricing, the less scary it becomes

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Reaction to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's initial comments today indicating that she was no longer interested in pursuing congestion pricing were apprently strong enough to produce a result: Quinn has, since her comments were published, stated that she still fully supports the policy, even if she also thinks it will never pass the state legislature.

Why did it take such a reaction to prompt Quinn (to say nothing of the other remaining mayoral contenders, who have also avoided the issue) to express support for an idea she once very publicly embraced? 

And, very much related: Do polls reveal some enormous level of hostility toward congestion pricing that would not be apparent in, say, a survey of people in my Twitter feed?

The answer to that second question is that it depends how pollsters state the congestion-pricing premise.

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Between 2007 and 2008, Quinnipiac University asked about the issue seven times.

Initially, Quinnipiac's pollsters described congestion pricing simply as a "charge" on driving in certain parts of Manhattan. Not surprisingly, people in Manhattan were more supportive of the idea than people in the outer boroughs. Also not surprisingly: people in all boroughs were generally down on the idea of paying for something that had previously been free.

Here's a chart of the results among Democratic voters:

And here are the results among all respondents, by borough.

By July, supporters of congestion pricing convinced the pollsters to change the wording of the question to reflect the full scope of the policy.

Yes there would be a charge, but the money raised would go to "prevent" bus, train and toll hikes.

Support for congestion pricing as a "charge" started at 40 percent, slipped below that mark and never recovered. But congestion pricing as a way to "prevent" toll and fare hikes got steadily more popular. 

Here's a graph showing support for the policy citywide, when asked both ways.

Then, a curveball.

In the last two Quinnipiac polls, the wording was changed again. In January and March of 2008, voters were asked if they supported congestion pricing if the money it generated went to "improve" mass transit. So instead of acting to "prevent" a negative (fare hike) the policy would "improve" a positive (mass transit).

It's a problem, in terms of comparing the data. But to paraphrase the philospher Donald Rumsfeld, you work with the polls you have, not the polls you want.

Anyway, here's a chart comparing how support among Democratic voters evolved over time, along with the wording of the question. Support for congestion pricing as a "charge" ebbed and flowed. Support for a policy to "prevent" toll hikes and then "improve" mass transit only got stronger.