Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Meigs Point at Hammonasset Beach State Park (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT – Supporters of Connecticut state parks are celebrating the inclusion of the Passport to the Parks program in the bipartisan state budget approved overwhelmingly last week in the House and Senate.

The budget still needs to be signed by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for it to become law. He has until Wednesday to reach a decision about the $41.34 billion package. If he signs it into law it means there will no longer be any parking fees for state residents, as of Jan. 1, 2018, to use any state parks.

This past year the parking fee was $13 for one weekend to Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison and $9 at most other parks, according to Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association (CFPA).

Last year budget cuts forced three of the state’s 14 campgrounds to close after the July 4th weekend. Nine other campgrounds were shut down after Labor Day.

Only Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison and Rocky Neck camping areas were open last year between Labor Day and Columbus Day weekend.

The free parking for Connecticut residents is expected to be a big draw for the bigger parks – such as Hammonasset and Rocky Neck in East Lyme.

To pay for the program, and cover the parking fees, the program adds a $10 charge (or $5 per year) to Department of Motor Vehicle registration two-year renewals.

The legislation that would have implemented the proposal originally died in committee, but supporters held out hope the idea could come up as part of the final state budget.

Supporters have tried, without success, in previous years to pass similar legislation.

One of its biggest backers of the program was Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, who held a press conference earlier in the year to push the initiative. She was unable to be reached for comment this weekend.

Hammerling, in a message to supporters, congratulated park program supporters.

“You did it!,” Hammerling said. “Your emails, calls, and personal contacts with legislators made a difference. Thanks to your involvement, the Passport to the Parks is in the bi-partisan 2018-19 budget that was just passed overwhelmingly by the General Assembly.”

Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Hammonasset Beach State Park (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

“Hooray!,” Hammerling added.

Hammerling estimated the program will bring in $13.9 million in revenues in the fiscal year 2019 budget. He added that it will be “a new, dedicated non-lapsing Passport to the Parks Fund with better protection against sweeps or diversions.”

In a follow-up interview over the weekend, Hammerling said it’s such a victory because without the program Connecticut state parks are reliant on the general fund for support. He said the only other state in the nation that relies on its general fund for its parks is Rhode Island.

“Chronic budget deficits have led to cuts to the parks almost every year for the past decade despite the popularity of parks and their documented economic benefits (a UConn study attributed an annual benefit of over $1 billion and over 9,000 jobs to state parks),” Hammerling said.

He said park advocates knew that budget cuts would lead to more campground and park closures in the future without the steady funding stream provided by the Passport to the Parks program.

“We’re really pleased that the Passport was approved, and we look forward to a more secure financial future for Connecticut’s great state parks,” Hammerling said.

Hammerling added that with no cost for parking involved one other big bonus of the program might be more state residents visiting Connecticut state parks, which could translate to even more tourism dollars.