Traffic counts this summer on highways leading to Baldwin County beaches were down by thousands of cars compared to last year, yet another indication of the oil spill’s impact on tourism.
The data from the state Department of Transportation reflected traffic numbers on Saturdays from May through July — days that many families would be checking in and out of beach condos and motels.
Among the findings:
- The count fell from 22,821 last year to 21,907 at Interstate 65 in Baldwin about five miles south of the Escambia County line.
- It dropped from 46,462 last year to 44,347 on Ala. 59 about two miles north of the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway.
- It fell from 27,155 last year to 24,128 on the beachfront highway — Ala. 182 — about 3½ miles east of Ala. 59.
The highway department has about 100 permanent traffic recorders set up on roads throughout the state, allowing the department to tally every single car and truck that drives over them.
This summer, those figures would include the vehicles carrying the thousands of response workers that BP PLC and its subcontractors brought in to clean the beaches.
The drop in traffic is just another metric showing fewer tourism dollars reaching coastal Alabama after the oil spill erupted in late April.
According to Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism data released last week, lodging rentals were down 40 percent and retail sales were down 22 percent in the two cities during June.
“Whether it’s traffic counts or lodging tax, any way you look at it you can certainly see that the oil dramatically affected everything that happened on the beach,” said Mike Foster, vice president for marketing for the tourism group.
Foster noted that fewer tourists at the beach means fewer cars driving past stores and attractions in Foley, Bay Minette and points north.
“We pull so many people through the state that it’s good not only for us, but for Mobile, Montgomery and other places,” he said.
Robert Ingram, president of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance, said that retail outlets rely on two factors when deciding where to locate — the number of nearby households and the passing traffic.
“Take that Target down in Gulf Shores: Target would never locate in a community as small as Gulf Shores, but once you add in that traffic count you’re looking at a good-size city,” Ingram said.
Ken Feinberg, the administrator of the oil-spill claims process, has said that he is considering proximity to the beach in determining whether a business is eligible for compensation from BP.
Ingram said that passing traffic is so important to many stores that if a drop in cars is related to the spill, it should be treated as a viable claim.
“You definitely could have a cause and effect further than 15 miles from the beach,” Ingram said, “especially for stores on that main corridor that rely on that beach traffic.”