Thursday, June 9, 2011

State Park Passport System Has Pros and Cons

(From the June 9, 2011  issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

If there’s one standard pleasure of a West Michigan summer, it’s going to the beach. The air is warmer, Lake Michigan looks inviting, and the increased number of people in the Tri-Cities seems to validate why we stick it out here through the long winters.

So driving into the local state park has become an annual rite of passage. For as long as I can remember we would buy our state park sticker early in the year and place it in the windshield proudly, knowing we would get our money’s worth.

This year the state has a new system for vehicle access to state parks. The old state park sticker for the front windshield has been replaced by a “Recreation Passport” that gives a vehicle access into all state parks, state recreation areas and state boat launches. Camping fees are extra, as they were in the past. When you renew your license plate and purchase the passport, your new tab will have a special "P" printed on it. The passport costs $10, which is a big savings from the previous $24 fee for an annual state park window sticker.

There are pros and cons to this new system. The obvious positive is the cost savings. Not only is it cheaper, but if you have more than one vehicle you can get passports for both of them cheaper than one old sticker used to cost. In the past, we had to always take the same car to the beach, and if one of us had the car with the sticker the other had to pay the daily rate, walk in from a far away free parking spot, or just not go to the beach.

There’s also the added convenience of getting state park access taken care of at the same time you’re renewing your vehicle license tabs. It’s nice to see government efficiency in action.

I also like to see Michigan residents who live here and pay taxes here year around getting some kind of bonus. We welcome tourists of course, but it is nice to know that our state park access is less expensive and easier to acquire because of our state residence.

The lower cost and ease of purchase also has revenue benefits for the state. It wasn’t long ago that state government budget negotiations had state parks and recreation areas on the table for cuts and sale to private parties. The new passport program with its lower cost and ease of purchase will encourage more residents to take advantage and raise more income for the state park system. Also, if more people use the parks more often, the case can be made that we should keep the park land in state hands.

The only cons seem to be the administration of the new system, at least so far. Recently at the annual kite festival and on Memorial Day the lines to get into the Grand Haven State Park were backed up to Chinook Pier and even as far as US 31 at times. It could be that more people are using the parks than ever before. The fact is that in this first year of implementation of the new program people can get in without a passport until the month their license tabs are due for renewal. In other words, if your license doesn’t renew until September you don’t need to have a little “P” on your tab until you’ve had the opportunity to pay the $10 for it.

But I also think we’re seeing a problem I anticipated when the program was announced. A little “P” in less than 8-point type is hard to see. It’s also on the back of the car instead of the front. So now instead of rangers seeing your sticker and waving you on at the booth they have to ask each and every driver if they have a Recreation Passport. Multiply this times a few hundred and that backs up traffic, especially since lots of people don’t read newspapers and have to have the new program explained to them.

A news release last month from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources noted that each park will handle this differently. Some may let everyone drive right in and rangers will check cars for tabs later and ticket those without a passport. Others will be asking for them at the booth. The problem with the first is a lot of people who haven’t paid will knowingly or not just enter the park. The problem with the second is the added time at the park entrance.

I would suggest new signage that explains what the “little P” is and directs drivers to enter the park if they have the passport and stop at the booth if they don’t would be a big help to alleviate congestion. Otherwise the Secretary of State should send passport stickers for front windshields along with license plate tabs. The passport is supposed to make our recreation easier, not add to time in traffic.