Next time you pay your vehicle registration, Connecticut residents will notice a new $10 fee. That money is going to a new program recently approved in the state budget called Passport to the Parks, a program designed to raise more revenue for state parks and charge all residents a flat fee for unlimited park access.
State Senator Ted Kennedy, Jr. (D-12), who serves as Senate co-chair of the Environment Committee, said this new program is designed to help generate more revenue for parks and hopefully make parks more financially self-sufficient.
“We are one of a few states that funds our state parks entirely through general fund revenue,” he said. “Every other state funds their state parks through some other mechanism, whether it is the gate revenues or concessions, motor fuel taxes, etc.”
The fee is $10 and will be collected with auto registration fees, allowing residents to enter all state parks at no charge and only charging out-of-state visitors. The fee is estimated to generate about $10 million more in revenue than current entry and parking fees, and Kennedy said the program will kick in for this coming season.
Kennedy said the program will hopefully cut down on traffic at some of the larger state parks because those residents with a Connecticut license plate will just be waved right through the gates. While the program does bring in a new fee, Kennedy said this program could actually end up saving residents some money.
“This idea of using the vehicle registration fees to create a ‘passport’ has been tried in seven or eight other states – red states and blue states – all different kinds of states and they have a similar type of program,” he said. “The reason I think this was a good idea is because people get something in return – in fact, you get a lot in return. I mean right now if you were to buy a season pass, which gives you unlimited parking and visitation, it would cost $67 per year so this is in some ways the deal of the century for the taxpayers.”
However, with the new program seniors, who had previously accessed state parks for free, will now be asked to pay the same amount as any other resident.
“Seniors now pay nothing to go to state parks but there has been a recognition that those programs are unsustainable because in other states that have been providing people over 65 with free access, many of them have overturned that or asked people to pay 50 percent,” he said. “I think that because of the population trends, it is just unsustainable because more and more people who have been utilizing the parks have not been paying for anything…this seemed like the most fair way to go.”
While the passport program in theory will generate more revenue for state parks, there is still some question of how safe that money will be as the state struggles through its budget crisis. When money is tight, legislators are known for sweeping certain accounts to pay for different programs.
“With a lot of funds, the governor has the capability to sweep, meaning go into these accounts, taking that money, and diverting it to other purposes, which is very frustrating,” he said. “I have been told this is not going to happen with Passport to the Parks because the last thing I want is to go through with this program, raise $13-14 million every year, and then have that money diverted to other issues that are not park related.”
Kennedy said when the legislative session starts up again, he plans to bring forward legislation to ensure the park money stays with the parks.
“Next session I have a plan to basically ensure that this money goes into a parks trust,” he said. “There are some accounts that are non-sweepable… my goal is to ensure that this money will be in perpetuity funding state parks.”
Connecticut is home to 109 state parks that attract close to nine million visitors each year. As the state’s largest shoreline park, Hammonasset alone draws more than two million visitors a year and nearly one million in the ten weeks of summer alone.
The Passport to the Parks program approval was the subject of debate and some concern at a recent Madison Board of Police Commissioners meeting. Police Chief Jack Drumm said that while Hammonasset is a state park, Madison provides the policing and emergency services for the park.
“They [the state] dump this on us – dumpster fires, assaults, medical calls, the occasional stabbing, we respond to all of that,” he said.
With the change in park entry procedure, Drumm said he is still worried about traffic backing up onto the Post Road and the Hammonasset Connector during the high point of the season.
“I am a little concerned about the governor waving the fee for those entering state parks next year,” he said. “We have enough problems at Hammonasset and I can only image what is going to happen.”