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Passport To Parks Fees To Restore State Property Benefits, But Is It Fair?

Published: March 18, 2018

The State of Connecticut has launched the Passport to Parks Program, in essence a new fee that is being charged on behalf of the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) at the time of any noncommercial motor vehicle registration. The fee was part of the bipartisan state budget adopted by the Connecticut General Assembly in late 2017, and is now surprising many residents when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to register or reregister a vehicle.

As of February 6, residents are no longer required to pay a parking fee at Connecticut State Parks and Forest recreation areas. Instead, DMV is collecting a $10 fee — $5 per year, with most registrations valid for two years — on behalf of DEEP at the time of registration and registration renewals for noncommercial motor vehicles, and plate transfers. This will also include passenger cars and vehicles with combination plates, as well as motorcycles, campers and motor homes, and vehicles with antique car plates. This is in addition to other fees charged at the time of registration or reregistration.

The fees are being assessed whether registrations are done at DMV or at a dealership.

According to a Passport To Parks Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document prepared by CT DEEP — which includes the Connecticut State Park system — Connecticut wants to make state parks, forests, trails, historic sites, and beaches more available to state residents. Under the Passport to Parks program, parking fees are eliminated at Connecticut State Parks for those with Connecticut registered vehicles. To make this possible, an increase in registration fees was passed by the General Assembly.

Those age 65 and older with a one-year registration renewal will have the additional $5 each year.

Dinosaur, Fort Trumbull, and Gillette Castle state parks offer free parking. There is a per person admission fee to visit the Dinosaur Exhibit Center, Fort Trumbull Visiting Center, and for touring the castle.
Nonresidents will continue to be charged vehicle fees when they visit a Connecticut State Park. Those fees range from $7 to $22 depending on the park and time of day.

Camping fees are still charged for all state park users, and also vary depending on residency of the person holding a reservation and the park they stay at.

The fee is applied to all noncommercial motor vehicle registrations. It is not limited to one vehicle per household. It is charged on each noncommercial vehicle registration regardless of how many an owner possesses.

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, feels the new program is a great idea launched at the right time.

“Without the revenues generated by the program, there would be further cuts to the state park budget, further closures of campgrounds, and further reductions of full-time and seasonal workers like lifeguards who hold the park system together,” Mr Hammerling said. “We are hopeful that this is a huge leap forward toward both sustainably funding Connecticut’s state parks and opening opportunities for all Connecticut residents to experience them.”

DMV Commissioner Michael Bzdyra said his department is “happy to help with providing access to many of Connecticut’s tremendous natural resources and give everyone an opportunity to visit and enjoy them.”
State residents were apparently among those who pushed for the new fee schedule.

“We are incredibly grateful to Governor Malloy, members of the General Assembly, stakeholders, and residents of Connecticut who advocated for this program to help fund our state parks,” DEEP Commissioner Robert Klee said. “Each year, nine million people visit our 110 Connecticut State Parks, providing enjoyment to all who visit. It is important that we provide adequate funding to ensure a safe and positive visitor experience. With this dedicated source of funding, we are able to restore many of the services that had been previously cut as a result of fiscal constraints.”

 

No Exceptions

The law does not provide exemptions for any groups.

Senior citizens are still eligible to obtain a Charter Oak Pass, however, which provides free access to state museums, including Gillette Castle, Dinosaur Park and Fort Trumbull.

Likewise, residents who are veterans, including disabled veterans, will also need to pay the Passport to Parks fee. Connecticut residents who are veterans with a service-connected disability are still eligible to obtain a Veteran’s Pass, which provides free access to state museums.

Part-time state residents, with vehicles registered in a state other than Connecticut, will not be charged the Passport to Parks fee when they register their vehicles. They will, however, be charged the daily parking fee in effect at Connecticut state parks, or will have the option of purchasing a season pass.

 

Returns On Investment

More than nine million people visit Connecticut’s 110 state parks each year, according to CT DEEP.

“This makes Connecticut state parks one of the top tourism destinations in the state,” the department said in its Passport to Parks FAQ. The new fee, the document says, “allows the State of Connecticut to give more to the public that has now invested in our park system: increased lifeguards, improved park maintenance, shoulder season camping for opening day of fishing and into the fall foliage, and longer hours at our museums and nature centers.”

Gov Malloy in February said that launching the program now will allow DEEP adequate time to begin restoring services to state parks for the upcoming 2018 spring and summer season.

In addition to the aforementioned, funds generated through Passport To Parks will provide will allow a number of services at the parks that had been previously reduced to be restored, such as the reopening of several closed campgrounds, increased staffing of state beaches during the summer, and the restoration of regular hours of operation at certain nature centers and museums.

All eight of the lifeguarded state parks — Hammonasset, Rocky Neck, Sherwood Island, Silver Sands, Black Rock, Burr Pond, Indian Well, and Squantz Pond — are anticipated to be fully staffed for the summer, according to the Office of Governor Malloy. Staffing is contingent upon adequate levels of lifeguards being available each season, and adjustments may be made toward the end of the season when many of the lifeguards return to school, the office adds.

Hours of operation for state museums and nature centers — including Dinosaur, Gillette Castle, Meigs Point Nature Center at Hammonasset Beach, and Fort Trumbull — will be restored from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Four campgrounds — Devil’s Hopyard in West Haddam, Green Falls in Voluntown, Macedonia Brook in Kent, and Spring Rock in Sprague — will reopen. The first three will open on April 14, coinciding with the first day of fishing season; Spring Rock will reopen the weekend before Memorial Day. All will remain open this season through Labor Day.

Spring camping season was restored on at American Legion and Peoples State Forests in Barkhamsted and Mount Misery in Voluntown. Both will reopen on April 14, and remain open through Labor Day.

In addition, fall camping will be restored at Hammonasset Beach, Rocky Neck in East Lyme, Housatonic Meadows in Sharon, and Hopeville Pond in Griswold. Hammonasset and Housatonic Meadows will remain open through Columbus Day; Rocky Neck and Hopeville Pond will be open through the end of September.

“Our state parks are one of our most valuable resources, providing recreation and enjoyment to families across our state and serving as an important economic engine,” Gov Malloy said. “Adopting the Passport to Parks system will help ensure that our state parks remain an attractive destination and continue adding to the quality of life and natural beauty we enjoy in our state.”

The bipartisan state budget, which was adopted by an overwhelming vote of the Connecticut General Assembly, created the Passport to the Parks nonlapsing account that was to fund expenses of the Council on Environmental Quality beginning with the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, and for the care, maintenance, operation, and improvement of state parks and campgrounds, the soil and water conservation districts, and environmental review teams. Unfortunately, the law was drafted to require appropriation of funds but none were made, necessitating a legislative fix this session.

The governor’s FY19 budget adjustment proposes to fix this problem by moving these government expenditures back on-budget through a separate appropriated fund called the Passport to the Parks Fund.

For additional information, contact Connecticut State Parks at 860-424-3200 or deep.stateparks@ct.gov.

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