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High-rise bridge opponents, research expert question validity of surveys

ANNA MARIA ISLAND — Replacing the Anna Maria Island bridge with a high-level, fixed span drew overwhelming support from island residents — at least among those who responded to the state’s latest public-opinion survey.

But high-bridge opponents and a public-opinion research expert question the results, saying they don’t necessarily reflect the island’s sentiment as a whole.

A Bradenton Herald analysis of the 468 surveys submitted to the Florida Department of Transportation in March and April found that 74.2 percent of island residents backed the high bridge. Support was slightly stronger on-island than off: 73.1 percent of non-islanders said they wanted a high-rise replacement bridge.

The Herald used property and tax records to confirm residency, using homestead exemptions as the measuring stick.

FDOT officials cited those results, as well as similar results from two previous surveys, in planning to recommend the aging drawbridge be replaced by one with 65 feet of clearance beneath it.

But those results might mean little.

That’s because FDOT used a survey method that has little or no statistical validity, a public-opinion research expert says. And until a scientifically sound survey or poll is done, how the public — especially island residents — really feel about the issue will remain undetermined, said Susan Schuler of Susan Schuler & Associates Inc., a marketing research firm in Brandon.

“What they (FDOT) got in this particular case is what we call a qualified response that tells you what the opinions are, but doesn’t tell you how many people hold them,” said Schuler, whose firm was not involved in the Anna Maria Island bridge surveys.

FDOT officials actually agree, saying the surveys were meant to obtain public input but not designed to definitively answer how residents felt.

“The surveys were another tool for us to evaluate what the public opinion was,” said Chris Piazza, a FDOT project manager who oversaw a study on the bridge’s future. “This was not a vote.”

As part of the study, FDOT conducted three surveys to gauge public sentiment on what to do with the aging drawbridge when it reaches the end of its expected lifespan in 10 to 15 years.

Each time, FDOT sent surveys to all mailing addresses on the island as well as those who signed up to receive regular newsletters about the study. Surveys also were available on the study’s Web site and at public meetings. Respondents could drop off completed surveys at the meetings or mail them in to FDOT.

The first survey, done in April 2008, drew 879 responses. It showed 82 percent of those responding said the bridge should be replaced, with two-thirds of them supporting a fixed bridge with 65 feet of clearance beneath it.

Only 58 responded to the second survey, conducted in December 2008 and January 2009, but it had similar results: 77 percent favored replacement, with 70 percent picking the high-level bridge.

A Bradenton Herald analysis of the third survey, done this past March and April, showed nearly identical results: 73 percent of the 468 respondents wanted a high-level span.

Piazza says the survey results were a factor in FDOT’s intent to recommend the high bridge to the U.S. Coast Guard for approval. A final decision on the recommendation will be made in June, he said.

But Schuler calls the results limited because of how FDOT distributed the surveys.

“When you talk about handing them out to people who opt in or attend public meetings, that takes out any statistical validity,” she said.

Also, such surveys have inherent flaws that diminish their accuracy, Schuler notes. In general, they tend to have low response rates and typically attract only those who already hold strong opinions on an issue, usually at the extremes.

“You lose the whole middle ground and you can’t tell what you lose,” Schuler said, adding that mail-in and drop-off surveys have few or no controls over who is responding and are vulnerable to organized campaigns designed to influence the results.

There was evidence of that in the third survey, according to the Herald’s review.

A Clearwater man sent in at least six surveys in favor of the high bridge. And at least 10 employees of a Bradenton law firm, none of whom lived on Anna Maria Island, turned in surveys supporting a high bridge.

Piazza said FDOT legally could not limit surveys to island residents.

“On every survey, no matter who it is, we have to accept their comments,” he said. “Someone who lives in Hillsborough County and drives across the bridge every day has as much a right to respond as someone who lives on the island.”

That prompted Ursula Stemm, president of Save Anna Maria, to question if non-islanders tipped the surveys’ results.

“People in East Manatee obviously would want a fixed span bridge because it wouldn’t impact them directly and they think it’ll get them on and off the island faster,” said Stemm, whose group has been the leading critic of a high-level bridge.

But the Herald’s review of the latest survey found support for a high bridge across all island cities: 75.6 percent of Anna Maria residents, 70.6 percent of Bradenton Beach residents and 73.6 percent of Holmes Beach residents.

Island residents were more divided on whether a new bridge should be built north or south of the existing one: 51.6 percent favored the south, while 20.1 percent chose the north route. The rest either were undecided or did not answer the question.

While Stemm questioned the surveys’ findings, she acknowledged there’s no way to determine their accuracy short of polling everyone on the island — which she said would be a monumental undertaking.

“It would almost have to be door-to-door to get a true consensus of the people,” she said.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.

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