People are driving less in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and most of the United States, and the downturn has cut into expected revenue from bridge and road tolls and gas taxes.
The mileage decline in January, locally and nationally, marked the first time in 27 years that travel dropped in consecutive Januarys, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The downward trend in vehicle-miles began in December 2007, as the nation's economy slid into recession and gasoline prices jumped.
In Pennsylvania, vehicle-miles were down 4.5 percent in January, to 7.4 billion; in New Jersey, they were down 6.5 percent, to 5.2 billion. Nationwide, travel was down 3.1 percent in January compared with the same period in 2008, according to the agency.
Only four states - Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut, and Michigan - experienced travel drops more precipitous than New Jersey's.
"With the economic recession, we're seeing fewer commuters, and more people are taking public transit," said David Weinstein, spokesman for AAA-MidAtlantic in New Jersey. "Gas prices are low now, but some people changed their behavior when it hit $4 last July. As long as the recession is around, there won't be a return to the 2006-2007 levels."
New Jersey and Pennsylvania have recently raised rates on their toll roads, and many regional bridge authorities, including the Delaware River Port Authority, also have increased tolls. The decline in traffic means the increases are producing less money than the agencies counted on.
On the New Jersey Turnpike, January traffic was down 8.9 percent from January 2008, but revenue was up 22 percent, thanks to a 40 percent toll increase imposed in December. For all of 2008, traffic on the turnpike was down 2.7 percent, and revenue was off 0.2 percent, according to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
On the Garden State Parkway, January traffic was down 8.7 percent compared with January 2008, while revenue was up 29.9 percent, because of December's 43 percent toll increase. In all of 2008, traffic on the Parkway was down 2.5 percent, and revenue was up 0.7 percent from 2007, the turnpike authority said.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike raised tolls 25 percent on Jan. 4, but toll revenue was up only 10.9 percent in January compared with the same period in 2008. Turnpike traffic was down 5.9 percent overall; commercial traffic, which accounts for nearly half the road's toll revenue, was down 14 percent.
On the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry Bridges, traffic was down 1.7 million vehicles, or 3 percent, in 2008, according to the DRPA, which operates the four bridges between Philadelphia and South Jersey. Revenue was up 6.5 percent for the year because of a 33 percent bridge-toll increase imposed in September.
Reduced driving also means many states are getting less in gas-tax revenue.
In fiscal 2008, Pennsylvania collected $1.2 billion in liquid-fuels taxes, down from $1.3 billion in 2007. A bigger drop is expected this year, as driving and gas consumption continue to decline. New Jersey collected slightly more in motor-fuels taxes: $563.3 million in fiscal 2008, compared with $561.6 million in fiscal 2007.
As driving declined, public transit increased. In 2008, more people rode buses, trains, trolleys and subways than in any other year since 1956. Americans made 10.7 billion trips on public transit in 2008, a 4 percent increase over 2007, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
Locally, SEPTA ridership was up 5.4 percent, PATCO was up 9.9 percent, and NJ Transit was up 4.5 percent.
In the first two months of 2009, though, transit ridership growth stalled. The tough economy and lower gas prices may be cutting into last year's gains, preliminary data indicate.