Fewer people came to the Atlantic City region by all major modes of transportation during the first four months of 2013.
The area saw double-digit percentage declines in air, casino bus and rail traffic. Experts point to Hurricane Sandy, nearly eight months after the storm, as the most likely reason for the drastic drop.
Statistics released monthly by the South Jersey Transportation Authority show that from January to April, the most recent period available, scheduled air traffic fell 28 percent; casino buses fell 24 percent; and rail travel on NJ Transit through Atlantic City fell 15 percent. Traffic through the Pleasantville toll plaza on the Atlantic City Expressway fell 7 percent over the same period compared to last year.
"I wish I was convinced that Sandy was behind us, but every time I think so I keep getting more and more evidence that it's out there in terms of its aftereffects," said Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism. "Certainly in the first quarter it seems to me that it's not out of the picture yet, but we'll need several more quarters before we know for sure."
The most staggering drop in the quarter was seen in scheduled passengers through the Atlantic City International Airport. There, 307,426 passengers traveled through the airport in the first quarter of 2013 compared with 425,819 passengers a year earlier. The airport, which has just one carrier, has been the subject of years of conversations focused on how to increase air travel to Atlantic City, though until recently the airport has not seen any significant declines. Airport travel had climbed from 1.12 million passengers in 2007 to about 1.4 million in 2012.
Misty Pinson, a spokeswoman for Spirit Airlines, said the drop is a direct result of the hurricane. The airline cut back on flights as a result of reduced demand following the storm, she said, pointing to lingering perceptions that Atlantic City was hit as hard as some more northern New Jersey beaches.
"We have seen a significant decrease in demand from local New Jersey residents as their vacation dollars over the four to six months have been spent on repairing their houses, businesses, etc., following Sandy," Pinson said.
Kevin Rehmann, a spokesman for the the SJTA, said theres's no doubt that Sandy is still playing a role in travel patterns, though he noted that the airport has not had any difficulty filling planes as long as the flights were offered in Atlantic City. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is poised to take over day-to-day operations at the airport beginning in July. The move is supported by Gov. Chris Christie, who has said increasing air travel will be a critical component to increasing visits to the resort.
Other modes of transportation are also seeing declines. In the first four months of the year, more than 6 million vehicles passed through the Pleasantville toll plaza on the Atlantic City Expressway, compared to more than 6.5 million a year ago.
Rehmann said traffic on the Expressway is always weather dependent to some extent, but acknowledged it's still likely that the effects of Sandy are lingering. Rehmann noted that about 10,000 fewer casino buses came to Atlantic City in the first quarter of the year, which will also factor into fewer tolls paid.
"If you have the same trend line, I'd say it's part of a trend we can understand," Posner said. "When you see a slope change dramatically, there's a good chance that a very dramatic event is playing a role. It's seems that's the case here."
Still, overall casino bus traffic has been problematic for some time. The number of casino buses and passengers coming to the resort has fallen steadily for years. In April alone, 185,967 people came to Atlantic City by casino bus compared to 240,469 in the same month in 2012. The decline represents a nearly 23 percent decrease.
Those declines have the potential to affect SJTA's budget, though no proposals are being considered for budget revisions, Rehmann said.
SJTA has used toll revenue to supplant the Atlantic City airport, which has never been self-sustaining. Through the new arrangement with the Port Authority, SJTA will continue to pay the airport subsidy, which in recent years has amounted to a little more than $3 million of a $15 million budget. In addition, SJTA will now pay the Port Authority $500,000 a year to operate the South Jersey operation.
"It's too soon to say how permanent this is going to be. We hope to be able to bounce back some," Rehmann said. "Sandy knocked everybody off their game, but hopefully this is something that can be fixed."
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January to April 2012
Total toll transactions on the Atlantic City Expressway: 16,202,506
Toll transactions on the expressway through the Pleasantville toll plaza: 6,524,730
Scheduled air passengers: 425,819
Casino buses: 41,286
Rail travelers on NJ Transit: 436, 783
January to April 2013
Total toll transactions on the Atlantic City Expressway: 15,336,085
Toll transactions on the expressway through the Pleasantville toll plaza: 6,074,947
Scheduled air passengers: 307,426
Casino buses: 31,233
Rail travelers on NJ Transit: 371,358
Source: South Jersey Transportation Authority