While every mode of transportation has seen decreases in visits to Atlantic City, casino bus traffic has had one of the longest stretches of decline, according to data from the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
The number of casino buses and passengers coming into Atlantic City has dropped year-over-year for the past 24 consecutive months. In February, the latest month available, 140,000 people traveled to the city on casino buses — 30 percent fewer than in the same month last year and about half the number riding two years ago, according to the authority’s data.
In contrast, the number of vehicles passing through the Pleasantville toll plaza on the Atlantic City Expressway — a major thoroughfare into the city — decreased by 11 percent compared to the same month last year. Much of that visitation has been lost to casinos in nearby jurisdictions that compete with Atlantic City.
Some lawmakers said they are trying to stem the tide through legislative changes, such as proposing that out-of-state buses be exempt from paying corporate business taxes.
Lawmakers have issued similar proposals for years, but Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said his latest bill has the best chance of being passed. Concerns that the state will lose money by lifting the tax have eased, he said.
“We’re finally getting it done,” he said. “I have had this bill at a minimum five years.”
Van Drew said the business tax has deterred out-of-state buses from coming to Atlantic City because it placed an additional financial burden on operators.
“It was the wrong thing to do,” he said. “It was a bad policy.”
The Office of Legislative Service estimates the state would lose $90,000 to $500,000 annually by lifting the tax, but Van Drew said he and others in the industry believe the estimates are high and if the tax was eliminated, New Jersey would benefit because tour companies may start running more buses into Atlantic City.
“They are very anxious, still,” Van Drew said of the bus operators.
At the same time, it is unclear whether Atlantic City would be able to regain casino bus business, particularly with many more gambling options available in surrounding states.
Bill Rohrbaugh, owner of a bus charter service from Manchester, Md., that still operates buses to Atlantic City, said he has seen many of his competitors abandoning the route over the years. He had hoped to pick up their business, but he hasn’t, and interest in trips to Atlantic City remains low, Rohrbaugh said.
“At one point, it was the biggest thing we had going for us,” he said of Atlantic City trips.
Rohrbaugh said the company has to cancel bus trips at times because only 12 passengers show up and he needs at least 30 to make it worthwhile. Casinos also are offering fewer promotions and making it less attractive to bus patrons, he said.
Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism, said he believed the drop in casino bus traffic was an indication Atlantic City was shifting away from serving convenience gamblers, many of whom ride casino buses.
“We got a hint of this from the sharp increase in luxury taxes in 2012,” Posner said. “Visitors, while spending fewer dollars in the casinos, are staying longer and spending more on other resort amenities.”
Compared with seven years ago, luxury tax collections increased by 35 percent to nearly $36 million in 2012, according to recently published studies from the institute. Last year’s increase was particularly steep, up 13 percent from the prior year, researchers said.
Luxury taxes are imposed on retail sales in Atlantic City of alcoholic beverages at casinos, bars and other venues; entertainment; room rentals; and rolling chair and beach chair rentals, among other items.
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