The busiest January in four years was followed by the slowest February in three years.
February traffic cruised in at No. 8 all time for the month with 84,095 arrivals compared with 88,517 for the same month in 2011.
Much of the blame for the slowdown can be attributed to the shorter February. This one-day difference between a 29-day Leap Year month and the 28-day February this year equals about 3,500 tolls or 80 percent of the 4,422 vehicles GIBA tolls were down.
Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority Board members, from left: Ginger Watkins, David Hayes and Gay Darsie enjoy a lighter moment at the last meeting as Hayes and Watkins remained chairman and vice chair, respectively.
Jim Cooper, executive director of the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority, cited three other significant factors;
n gas prices rose 50 cents in one month;
n red tide repelled visitors through its smell and toxicity; and
What: GIBA Board meeting
When: 1:30 p.m. May 15
Where: Boca Grande Community Center Woman's Club Room
Why: Bridge replacement project
Who: Open to the public
n winter cooled unseasonably.
"While this is the lowest drop in GIBA's monthly traffic in a very long time, it can easily be explained," Cooper said. "In perspective, this one-time 5 percent traffic drop certainly does not indicate a big problem."
February also featured 15 days of single-lane closures as the new South Bridge was being completed, which slowed traffic counts, too.
Of all the factors, the most worrisome is rising gas prices, Cooper said.
"This gas price issue, if it goes up any further or does not decrease, will loom larger as a negative impact on GIBA traffic counts as we approach the summer," Cooper said. "More of our summer toll traffic is from Florida customers."
March is always the peak Gasparilla Island travel month with spring break and the Easter holiday encouraging island visits.
February tolls rank No. 9 all time and were 4,422 vehicles and 4.9 percent below February 2012.
February traffic did manage to improve by 1,605 tolls and 1.9 percent over the 82,490 arrivals in January. It was the smallest month-over-month February increase since 2002.
Gasparilla Island paid tolls usually rise every month from January through the apex in March, which has attracted more than 100,000 vehicles nine years in a row.
The year 2012 closed out with an annual total increase 1.4 percent and 11,609 more vehicles than 2011 or about 967 per month more on average.
The all-time annual record of 904,766 was set six years ago in 2007.
Traffic has remained steady despite two $1 toll increases the past 17 months equaling 50 percent of the $4 toll before the boosts.
Traffic stability is more important after voters rejected a proposed property tax increase Nov. 6, 2012, and tolls became the only established revenue stream to pay for the estimated $31.9 million bridge project.
A $30 million State Infrastructure Bank loan has been added to the financing mix. The SIB loan is expected to close by August.
"The unusual timing of an early Easter on March 31 this year and college vacation breaks will certainly help our increase March traffic counts, but it may also negatively impact April traffic,' Cooper said. "Only time will tell."