Traffic decline worries Mackinac Bridge officials
By JACK STOREY/The Evening News
Story created May 30, 2007 - 11:41:23 EDT.
ST. IGNACE - Mackinac Bridge officials are not quite ready to press the panic button, but the downward trend in bridge traffic has a potential financial bearing on large upcoming maintenance and repair projects.
Bridge Authority Executive Secretary Bob Sweeney said a sharp, 8.7 percent decline in Memorial Day weekend traffic was not necessarily a fluke. While he acknowledged sky high gasoline prices played a role in depressing the numbers of summer weekend travelers, Sweeney also noted that a downward trend is not particularly new at the bridge.
“We have been down every year since 1998. There has been a steady decline until the last two years,” Sweeney said. He noted that two successive spring spikes in gas prices only accentuated the downward trend.
“This weekend definitely was a concern. It's (Memorial Day) usually a good weekend for us so it's a concern,” Sweeney added.
The bridge official does not have to look too far down the road to see possible financial trouble ahead. Highest on the authority's overall priority list is the scheduled replacement of the five-mile bridge's deck, an estimated $200 million job tentatively scheduled to begin in 2017.
Before that, the bridge authority is looking at two upcoming phases in its current painting project, with multi-million contracts coming up in 2010 and 2012. The bridge authority is just now finishing off an $18 million painting project on the center span.
The 2010 portion of the overall job is estimated at $11 million and the last section in 2012 will run to about $15 million.
Before the big bridge job even starts five years later, the authority will have spent a total of $44 million on painting alone.
Sweeney openly acknowledges that even with the $1 increase in Mackinac Bridge fares passed in 2004, a potential financial squeeze lies ahead for the authority.
“If traffic continues to decline, we could have some financial trouble around 2013, just from the painting (projects),” he said.As matters stand today, he said, the authority can forecast a budget shortfall by 2013, four short years before the largest replacement project in the bridge's 50-year history is scheduled to begin. At an estimated $200 million, the deck project alone will run to at least twice the cost of building the entire bridge.
While that ever-present future financial burden will hardly be paid out-of-pocket, Sweeney said the financial condition of the bridge authority will inevitably bear on bond rates used to finance the big job 10 years out on the horizon.
“More that five years out, the timing of a project becomes an issue, but the 2017 project is so significant you have to keep an eye on it,” Sweeney said.
The gradual drop in bridge traffic has continued for so long, Sweeney said it has become a financial concern even though the painting projects are still three and five years off, respectively.
As matters stand now, he said the bridge authority expects to retain a more or less healthy fund balance (or retained earnings) to keep its finances healthy through the 2013 painting contract.
The bridge official noted that whatever maintenance and reconstruction is done on the still-sound Mackinac Bridge, the funding all comes from bridge tolls. Looking over the mix of bridge revenue types, he said toll receipts are heavily dependent on private autos and small trucks. Roughly 70 percent of the Mackinac Bridge's revenue is drawn from those vehicles and 30 percent derives from the significant but still secondary commercial truck traffic.
Thus when a big tourist weekend turns sour for whatever reason, the bridge authority feels the pinch. Last weekend's traffic decline, for example, amounted to about 5,800 vehicles from the same weekend last year. Reduced by temporarily stronger traffic in early May, the bridge count is off about 3,000 vehicles for the month.
A good part of that late May slump can be attributed to high gasoline prices, but Sweeney found the more worrisome trend is a yearly total roughly 6.5 percent down so far in 2007 - a continuation of a pattern that began in the late 90s.
The outlook is not entirely all downhill from Sweeney's perspective, despite eight of nine years of traffic declines on the big bridge. He noted that the Mackinac Bridge's two biggest months in any year still lie ahead. If gas prices ease and the temperature rises in lower Michigan by July and August, traffic volume in those two months alone could easily erase declines in the other 10 months, he said.
It was not entirely clear if his fingers were crossed at the time.
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