AC traffic

Competition from casinos in surrounding states and the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy took their toll on Atlantic City's highway and airport travel in 2013.

Rail and casino bus traffic also declined for the year, showing that all modes of transportation were vulnerable to the downward trends, according to year-end figures released by the South Jersey Transportation Authority.

Nearly 52.1 million toll-paying vehicles traveled on the Atlantic City Expressway in 2013, a 2 percent decline compared to the 53 million vehicles in 2012. Traffic has declined for five straight years on the expressway, the main corridor to Atlantic City and the resort's casino hotels.

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Year-end traffic figures were not available Wednesday for Route 30 and Route 40, the other two heavily traveled entryways into Atlantic City. Highway traffic is a closely watched indicator of the local economy because the vast majority of Atlantic City visitors arrive by car.

"For the last several years, 90 percent of arriving visitors have come via the roadway. There's a small percentage that comes in through the airport and by rail and bus," said Israel Posner, a casino and travel analyst who serves as executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Posner blamed Hurricane Sandy and the competition from casinos in neighboring states for driving down Atlantic City's traffic figures.

The traffic declines mirror the trends in the casino industry. Atlantic City gambling revenue declined 6 percent in 2013, to $2.86 billion. Revenue from Atlantic City's slot machines and table games peaked at $5.2 billion in 2006, but has been falling every year since then amid intense competition.

"I think if you look at the numbers, it's pretty clear that competitive forces in eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland continue to have an impact," Posner said of Atlantic City's casino industry.

Posner believes the traffic declines also reflect Hurricane Sandy's blow to the local economy. Although the hurricane pounded the Jersey Shore in October 2012, its aftereffects still are being felt by homeowners and businesses, he said.

"The reality is that Hurricane Sandy had legs that lasted (through 2013) and it is still going on," Posner said. "For individual homeowners and businesses up and down the coast, there's no doubt in my mind that 2013 has had lingering effects from Hurricane Sandy. It's hard to deny. You still see people rebuilding their homes."

Considering the factors that worked against Atlantic City, Posner said he was surprised the travel figures for 2013 were not worse. The expressway in particular escaped with only a small decline, he noted.

"It's holding kind of steady," Posner said of expressway traffic.

Atlantic City International Airport suffered the biggest travel declines in 2013. Overall, the airport handled 1.1 million passengers on scheduled flights and charters, an 18 percent drop from nearly 1.4 million passengers in 2012.

Most of the passengers use Spirit Airlines, currently the airport's lone scheduled carrier. In 2013, there were 1 million scheduled passengers, down 20 percent compared to 1.25 million in 2012.

The number of passengers traveling on casino buses fell 18 percent in 2013, to 2.1 million. Casinos have been cutting back on bus passengers in recent years to concentrate their marketing and promotional programs on wealthier customers arriving by car.

Rail passengers, meanwhile, were down nearly 5 percent in 2013. NJ Transit's commuter rail line, which links Atlantic City with Philadelphia, carried about 1.25 million passengers last year, compared to 1.3 million in 2012, figures show.

Air travel is regarded as having the greatest potential for growth. Airplane traffic currently represents only about 1 percent of the total number of Atlantic City visitors. However efforts are ongoing to attract more airline passengers to replace the day-trippers lost in recent years to rival casinos in surrounding states.

"The most lucrative way of travel is by plane, because they are going to stay longer and be a different type of passenger," Posner said. "They're worth more to the city, because they're going to stay longer."

Hope has been building that the airport's new operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, will be able to transform the terminal into a busy travel hub. The port authority has scored an early coup by signing up United Airlines to fly to Atlantic City from its Chicago and Houston hubs beginning April 1.

The South Jersey Transportation Authority, the airport owner, referred questions about 2013's passenger traffic to the port authority. The port authority's management team did not immediately comment Wednesday.

E.J. Mullins, the airport's interim general manager for the port authority, said in a speech Tuesday to a group of public relations executives that talks continue with airlines for more service. He declined to name the airlines or the routes that are being discussed, insisting the port authority does not want to tip off competing airports about its growth strategy.

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