The cost of transportation is a critical expense in any budget, corporate or consumer.
And the start of 2017 suggests Orange Countians — bosses and worker bees alike — are a bit skittish about overall economic prospects and are adjusting their travel spending accordingly.
Year-to-date data from three slices of the transportation business — buying new vehicles, flying to or from John Wayne Airport and use of local tollways — show a slowing in spending. These are more examples of a cooling economy that’s also shown up in a greatly diminished hiring pace seen across many industries in Orange County.
Car lots are quieter. The Orange County Automobile Dealers Association reports year-to-date sales are off 2.5 percent through May.
A 3.9 percent increase in light truck sales, showing growing preference for larger vehicles and local businesses redoing their fleets, was not enough to overtake a 7.9 percent plunge in traditional car sales.
This was a trend we saw a year ago: Car sales fell 2.6 percent in 2016’s first five months while light trucks jumped 17 percent for an overall 5 percent increase.
Industry insiders suggest cheaper gasoline prices are changing buyer preferences, but the overall weaker buying pace is a tad worrisome.
John Wayne Airport isn’t as bustling with 4.1 million passengers flying in or out in 2017’s first five months. That’s down 123,000 people from 2016, or a 2.9 percent drop.
In this same timeframe in the previous year, the airport gained 170,000 passengers or a 6.8 percent jump. A chunk of this year’s drop is due to the loss of some international flight activity as airlines retool flight schedules.
Still, less travel could ripple through the local tourism business. Orange County hotel occupancy was down — but by only 0.6 percentage points to 78.25 percent — for the first three months of the year.
Now consider the three local toll roads, where toll collections are up smartly since 2017 started. Remember, economically…