Eye On Illinois: $10M for Starved Rock yet not a dime from parking fees

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It’s time to charge a parking fee at Illinois State Parks.

This is not a newly held position. In January 2017 I wrote a column saying we were past due for charging small, optional fees for in-state cars and larger sums for out-of-state visitors. Then, Michigan was charging $32 for its annual Recreation Passport; it’s now $36. Wisconsin still charges $38.

Indiana and Minnesota charge visitors as well. Both states have daily fees, there are some hourly options and discounts for in-state residents, seniors, motorcycles, multiple vehicles in the same household and so forth.

Illinois charges nothing, then leaders wonder why there isn’t enough money to maintain facilities and fully staff the Department of Natural Resources.

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland

So despite some celebration around recent coverage of $10 million appropriated to long-needed repairs at Starved Rock State Park – trail improvements, replacing bridges and stairs, upgrading water filtration, adding vault toilets and upgrading campground electrical sites, among other work – the fact the project list is so expansive speaks to a lack of long-term planning.

Starved Rock routinely draws more than 2 million visitors annually, which boosts attendance at nearby Matthiessen State Park, another (albeit smaller) gem. But underfunding has statewide effects. In June 2021, IDNR told lawmakers it needed 2,500 employees to manage 330 state-owned and leased facilities, but had funding for only 1,170.

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, has floated legislation for Starved Rock admission fees but never got sufficient support because lawmakers couldn’t figure out a fair way to keep the park free to those who live closest. Deploying staff gate to check patron ZIP codes isn’t an ideal solution, and although it’s pretty easy to let Illinoisans park for free while charging visitors, that wouldn’t address the underlying concerns that it’s “Chicago people” who come in and “ruin” the park (or fall off a cliff and require emergency rescue services).

Ideally all state recreational offerings would be free to Illinois taxpayers, but we already draw some lines: parking and hiking are free, camping requires a fee, hunters and fishers pay for licenses, boaters register watercraft. So solving this problem is a matter of where to draw the next few lines.

Maybe the DNR can cooperate with the Secretary of State to offer a custom license plate for frequent users. Perhaps Illinoisans can qualify to buy multi-year or even lifetime passes while visitors must pay annually no matter what. Or we can look at everything DNR offers and make sure everything costs between a little and a lot.

Government is a service, not a business, but that doesn’t mean everything has to operate at a loss. Reasonable fees would be a sign of respect to everyone whose taxes help fund DNR operations.

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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October 29, 2022 at 05:04AM

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