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Free passes are back at Dash Point and Saltwater

By CASEY OLSON

The Mirror

Backed by declining attendance at the 120 state parks across Washington, lawmakers are ready to cut the $5-per-visit vehicle permit fee that has been in place for the last three years.

The state House of Representatives and Senate have passed legislation to repeal the unpopular parking fee that was instituted with the Legislature’s blessing in January 2003. Currently, the bills are awaiting a signature from Governor Christine Gregoire and a possible funding mechanism to replace the money generated from the collection of the fees.

“The final budget hasn’t been passed,” said Virginia Painter, spokeswoman for Washington State Parks. “But we are pretty sure the $5 fee is going to be ended, at least for now. We just don’t know what effect that will have on us.”

A decision on the funding and when the parking fee will be officially eliminated could come as early as tomorrow, according to Painter.

Ending the fee has become a popular move during the 2006 legislative session that’s scheduled to end Thursday. The measure rolled through the House and was easily passed by the Senate. The fees generated $3.4 million in revenue during the last fiscal year and over $11 million since 2003.

“It has been very interesting,” Painter said. “We aren’t sure how much we are going to get from the Legislature. Everyone seems to think we need something, but until something comes out in the budget, you just don’t know. We’re pretty certain we will get most of that ($3.4 million) amount” from the state’s general fund.

But parks might have to reduce services or make other cuts if legislators can’t find replacement money, she said.

The Federal Way-area’s two state parks –– Dash Point and Saltwater –– have both felt the effects of the $5-per-visit parking fee the last three years. Attendance has steadily declined, with Dash Point taking one of the most dramatic hits in Washington.

According to the latest estimated numbers released by the state Parks and Recreation Commission, the 398-acre park overlooking Puget Sound has seen its attendance plummet from an estimated 769,000 visitors in 2001 to 265,000 in 2004.

Saltwater State Park has also suffered a drop, just not as drastic. Saltwater, which sits on the border of Federal Way and Des Moines, drew 573,975 people in 2001, compared to 332,827 in 2004.

Park visits statewide have dropped approximately 20 percent from more than 45 million people in 2001 to 38.1 million in 2004.

Lawmakers have attributed the downturn in attendance to the parking fee. But park system officials, who aren’t in favor of the elimination of the fee, contend that the decline is something that they expected.

Officials from other states said park attendance would drop by 30 percent to 40 percent when the parking fee started but would recover in three to five years. Attendance has started to rebound, and people are finding clean, well-maintained parks, Painter said.

Park rangers and managers are also worried that repealing the parking fee will cause an increase in vandalism.

Dash Point State Park was especially hit hard by vandals before the fee was enacted. The park became a congregating point for drug activity and vagrants. Officials attribute the drop in vandalism incidents to the parking fee, making patrolling and policing a little easier because there just aren’t as many people coming through the gates.

The parking fee was adopted three years ago to avoid park closures and to improve parks. In 2003-05, the state was facing a $3 billion shortfall in its budget. Over the years, maintenance in parks had been deferred and public services reduced in order to cover the increasing costs of operations.

The Parks Commission, aware of the state’s budget crunch and the deteriorating park system, determined that it was reasonable to charge the new fee to people who visit parks for the day. All the money collected from the $5-per-day fee went into a parks stewardship fund, and the commission was given full spending authority.

Expenses covered through the fund include rangers and seasonal employees, law enforcement, interpretive programs, taking care of grounds and historic buildings, monitoring sewer and water systems, campground and other maintenance, public information, equipment and construction. The parking fee also helped pay for $16 million in backlogged park maintenance and provided workers so rangers could spend more time leading hikes and doing other activities with guests.

“Now we just have to wait and see what happens,” Painter said. “The commission will have some complicated things to discuss at its next meeting.”

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565, sports@fedwaymirror.com

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