Thursday, Aug. 24, 2006 | His bearded face pops up as soon as you log on to an anti-Miramar airport’s website. In an internal e-mail, a member of that same anti-airport group, Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, called him “that budding rock star.” They also list him as an (unpaid) advisory member.
There he is on television. There he is quoted in local newspapers. There he is speaking at airport town halls.
Richard Carson hasn’t gone away.
The University of California, San Diego economics professor first popped up in the airport debate in the spring, when he challenged the airport authority’s forecasting of the impacts of keeping the region’s international airport at Lindbergh Field. Doing so, the authority said, would cost the region as much as $130 billion in lost revenue by 2030.
Carson said the region wouldn’t lose a cent.
Carson presented his findings to the authority’s board. The authority hired a consultant to rebut him. The consultant signed a $49,000 contract. For a few weeks, Carson was hot news. He was something of a media sweetheart: A talkative economist who took the time to explain his reasoning.
Then he faded from the airport debate.
The airport authority has since decided that Lindbergh Field should be closed, that the region’s international airport should be at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. And as the politics of the airport’s future begin to heat up – voters decide Nov. 7 whether Miramar is best – Carson has returned to the public spotlight. He continues to offer one of the most searing critiques of the authority’s justification for closing Lindbergh Field – that $130 billion figure.
He says the authority overestimated passenger demand. He says it underestimated the cost of building a Miramar airport. And he says it failed to look at more practical solutions.
Miramar opponents have seized on Carson’s name and reputation. As they have, Miramar proponents have dug into Carson’s past, looking for something to explain away his motives.
What they’ve found: Two papers on growth controls that Carson co-authored with former UCSD economics professor Peter Navarro, known for his failed political campaigns in the early 1990s that employed the slow-growth slogan “PLAN: Prevent Los Angelization Now.”
John Chalker, a steering committee member of the Coalition to Preserve the Economy, a pro-Miramar group, says Carson has supported Navarro’s slow- or no-growth policies. He questions why Carson only came forward with his findings late in the three-year airport site search, and says the professor believes a constrained airport will help restrict growth.
“I’m not aware that he’s regarded as an expert on aviation matters outside of San Diego,” Chalker says. “And his comments have been refuted by several other recognized aviation experts in detail. His approach only looks at one aspect of the problem and not the entire picture.”
Carson says he has taken positions calling for growth to support itself. And while he lives in Scripps Ranch – a neighborhood northeast of Miramar – he says his home (four miles away) wouldn’t be affected by a commercial airport.
“It does strike me as odd that someone thinks that I can somehow be easily discredited,” he says. “Chairman of one of the country’s top economics departments and president of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists? I teach grad courses on this. I’m not some idle person that they pulled out of the woodwork.”
Does the Navarro association discredit Carson? Does it reveal an ulterior motive? Or is it an ad hominem attack that peels back the curtain on the costs of being involved in San Diego politics?
Steve Erie, a UCSD political science professor who supports moving the region’s international airport to Miramar, compares criticism of Carson to the attacks on pension whistleblower Diann Shipione.
“This is classic San Diego character assassination. It’s B.S.,” Erie says. “Richard Carson is one of the nation’s top environmental economists. The fact that he co-authored a couple of pieces with Peter Navarro in the Pleistocene Age doesn’t make any difference. … My advice to the airport supporters is cool your jets, literally and figuratively on this.”
Carson’s accessibility has made him a favorite of Miramar opponents. Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, an anti-Miramar political action committee, lists Carson as an advisory member. T.J. Zane, the group’s campaign manager says Carson’s credibility has given them a boost.
Zane explains the criticism of Carson this way: “The fallback for the other side has to be to attack the messenger. It’s certainly easier to do that than to get into the specifics of the argument.”
Since disagreeing with the authority’s $130 billion forecast, Carson has expanded his criticisms. He acknowledges that the region needs to do something to accommodate increasing air travel.
But he says the authority predestined the outcome of its extensive three-year airport search by coming up with Miramar-specific specifications. The search has been based on the assumption that the region needs two 12,000-foot runways separated by 4,300 feet.
The authority has said the lengthy runways will accommodate the types of aircraft – Boeing 777s for example – that can’t take off fully loaded from Lindbergh Field’s shorter runway. But just seven daily flights to Asia and Europe are forecasted in 2030.
While one 12,000-foot runway could benefit the region, Carson says, that doesn’t mean two will be helpful. That additional requirement could have precluded other potential sites, he says.
“It was a nice requirement,” Carson says. “It would have been a nice thing to happen. But once you get out of L.A. and Denver and Dallas and O’Hare, we’re not looking at many airports that have this configuration.”
Alan Gin, a University of San Diego economics professor, says Lindbergh Field’s lone runway – which is projected to reach its capacity by 2022 – will have some impact. But it won’t be as extreme as Carson and the airport authority predict, Gin says.
That doesn’t mean that Carson is playing politics by studying the issue and participating in the debate, Gin says.
“The question that needs to be asked is: Is it OK for academic economists to take stands on issues?” Gin said. “I think it’s legitimate to take a stand and I think it’s legitimate for people to question you. You don’t want your view to skew your work. You don’t want to manipulate data. But if you have a point of view and you do some analysis that supports that point of view, I wouldn’t call that playing politics.”
Carson, a 51-year-old native of Jackson, Miss., will soon be ducking back out of the debate. He’s leaving in early September on a 27-country tour during a year-long sabbatical. He’ll be gone during the heat of election season. That’s fine with him, he says.
“If I hadn’t felt so professionally offended by what they’re doing, I don’t know that I would have gotten involved,” he says. “I didn’t need to take this on. I didn’t have any agenda. I would have been happy to have said they were right.”