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Tuesday, March 21, 2006 | After each had made lengthy presentations to the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, two professors with divergent views of the need to replace Lindbergh Field stayed behind and talked to one another about their differences.
Standing in the authority’s board room, all that separated them was a row of chairs – and $94 billion dollars.
On one side of the chairs: Richard Carson, chairman of the economics department at University of California, San Diego, and his belief that the city doesn’t need a new airport and won’t lose $94 billion in future regional production if it doesn’t build one.
On the other side: Seth Young, an associate professor in the college of business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, who the authority has hired as a consultant. He contends that Carson may be right on a few points, but is wrong on the big ones.
The two never debated each other during the meeting. But when reporters began questioning Carson, the UCSD professor persuaded Young to join him.
“He actually called me economically illogical at the end,” Carson told the reporters.
“I did?” Young replied.
For anyone hoping to see a knock-down, drag-out debate between middle-aged men with doctoral degrees, that was as close at it got. But Carson faced skepticism from many board members.
Carson contended that the authority’s 2001 economic analysis used to demonstrate the need for a new regional airport is flawed. He told the board some of its assumptions looked like a “boosterism effort” and suggested that its authors take his introductory-level economics class.
Instead of building a new airport, Carson said, the authority could instead manage future capacity demands at Lindbergh Field by using larger planes and by auctioning landing and takeoff slots to airlines at peak times.
But board member Robert Maxwell wasn’t buying the idea that airlines would simply buy new fleets to accommodate San Diego’s capacity issues. And board member William Lynch questioned Carson’s assertion that San Diego could manage growing passenger traffic without building a new airport.
“My concern is that on all transportation – not just the airlines – that we constantly have people predicting the opinions of the American public,” Lynch said. “[Americans] want to go where they want to go, how they want to go, when they want to go.”
Young and Carson agree that passenger traffic will continue increasing in San Diego. While Carson thinks it can be managed, Young said it can’t. If a new airport isn’t built, Young said the city will miss out on a “huge potential” for non-stop service to mid-sized cities such as Omaha and Oklahoma City. The region’s potential to grow would be limited by constraints imposed by Lindbergh Field’s current capacity, he said.
Carson admitted the area will see future ticket prices rise under his scenario, just as they will if a new airport is built. Limiting flights at peak times – auctioning off those slots to airlines – might increase prices, he argued, but not as much as building a new airport would. Carson used an Imperial Valley airport – with an assumed price tag of $20 billion – as the basis for his argument.
But board member Paul Peterson questioned whether building a two-runway airport at a less expensive central location – such as Marine Corps Air Station Miramar – would be better than keeping Lindbergh open.
Building a new $5 billion to $6 billion airport would still cost more than managing the airport’s capacity, Carson said. He said the only way it would make economic sense to build a new airport would be if the authority got the land for free.
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