Figures from the state Thruway Authority confirm the impact many believed high gas prices would have on travel: People are driving less.
Toll booths enable the Thruway Authority to count each vehicle traveling the state’s major transportation artery, and those counts show a decline of 5 percent in the month of June and 3.1 percent for July as of Friday, Thruway Authority spokeswoman Sarah Kampf said.
“It’s estimated traffic for the first half of the year will be down by 1.5 percent,” Kampf said.
The decrease in travel will lead to changes in maintenance plans to make up for lost revenue, but it also holds implications for counties such as Montgomery — a county that depends on sales tax revenue from the sale of fuel at Thruway rest stops and truck stops near the highway.
Kampf said there is no indication the Thruway Authority will implement additional toll hikes, but maintenance and reconstruction will be scaled back.
The impact of inflation on construction-related materials further squeezes the amount of money available for construction work, Kampf said.
Some projects slated for full-depth reconstruction will instead entail “mill and fill” jobs, and some bridges the Thruway Authority planned to replace will instead be repaired, Kampf said.
“The capital plan has already been adjusted downward by $300 million,” Kampf said, and further reductions are being considered.
Kampf said there doesn’t appear to be a specific segment of traffic, such as private cars or commercial trucks, that is down.
“It’s kind of across the board,” Kampf said.
The Thruway counted just less than 255 million trips for 2007, so a dip of 1.5 percent equates to roughly 3.8 million vehicles — many of which stop at a Thruway rest stop or truck stop adjacent to the Thruway to buy fuel.
In the case of Montgomery County, which receives sales tax revenue from two Thruway rest stops in addition to the massive truck stop in Fultonville, the loss of traffic on the Thruway could lead to a significant downturn in revenues.
According to a report issued this week by the state comptroller’s office, Montgomery County ranks second in the state for gasoline sales as a percentage of overall sales tax revenues.
Sales tax from gasoline represented 15.93 percent of Montgomery County’s $7.47 million in sales tax receipts between January and April of 2007, according to the comptroller’s office.
Current figures, however, indicate that there has been no drop off in sales tax revenue for Montgomery County recently — but the comptroller’s office is cautioning that the increase in the cost of gasoline will likely provide a short-lived boost in revenues.
“We see an uptick in revenues through gasoline sales, but when it becomes apparent that people are going to need to tighten their belts, this is going to drop off. It’s inevitable,” said Bill Reynolds, a spokesman for the state comptroller’s office.
“Increasing energy costs may also force consumers to rethink their discretionary spending. For example, as the price of gasoline increases, consumers will be less apt to purchase larger [and often more expensive] automobiles, which are also subject to the sales tax,” the comptroller’s report states.
Montgomery County Treasurer Shawn Bowerman said the impact of changes in gasoline sales is difficult to gauge, but he said he’s maintaining a cautious attitude when estimating sales tax revenues for the upcoming year.
Figures show tax revenues for Montgomery County grew by 5.5 percent this year compared with the period of January through April last year, and Bowerman said the next set of figures will provide critical information for budgeting.
“I think a big telling sign will be what happens in the third quarter,” Bowerman said.
Some supervisors in Montgomery County have called the county’s fund balance, which was greater than $15 million, excessive.
But Bowerman said the impact of fluctuating factors such as sales tax revenues makes it a good idea to hold onto that money for the future.
“I will be appropriating some fund balance to at least stabilize taxes. I know there’s a feeling among some of the board members they want to see a reduction, but I can see a considerable amount of fund balance being used for 2009,” Bowerman said.
“I’ve been using caution the last two years, and that’s part of what’s happening with the fund balance. I’ve been very conservative because I’ve been banking on sales tax starting to level off,” Bowerman said.
Bowerman said he anticipates estimating sales tax revenue to remain the same for 2009.