MADISON, CT —State officials and environmentalists Thursday were celebrating the recently approved Passport to Parks program that allows free parking at Connecticut beaches and parks, but it has some local officials worried about summer traffic jams.
Madison is home to Hammonasset State Park, the largest state beach, which attracts residents from both inside and outside Connecticut.
On Thursday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was at Silver Sands in Milford, kicking off the summer beach season and basking in the bipartisan support for the Passport to Parks program.
But this is the first time out-of-state residents will be charged for parking, while Connecticut residents won’t and it has some Madison officials nervous – for two reasons.
Madison officials are worried free parking will mean even more Connecticut residents than normal flock to Hammonasset on hot summer days. And that, combined with the fact that park workers will have to distinguish between non-paying visitors and out-of-state paying visitors, could bring traffic problems Madison officials believe.
Madison First Selectman Tom Banisch said the fact that Connecticut residents can come to Hammonasset free means the town “may see an influx of out-of-towners.”
“I’m concerned that the [state] park will fill up and people who can’t get in will look elsewhere in town to go to a beach,” Banisch said. “We’ll be vigilant to be sure our town assets are deployed for residents and their guests.”
Passport to Parks supports services at the state parks system while allowing Connecticut residents who have valid state license plates to access all state parks for free, effective immediately.
Created by the bipartisan state budget that was adopted late last year, Passport to Parks is supported through a $10 fee that is being applied through the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to non-commercial vehicles that have new registrations, renewals, and plate transfers registered. These include passenger cars and vehicles with combination plates, as well as motorcycles, campers/motor homes, and vehicles with antique car plates.
Funds generated through this system will provide the Connecticut State Park system – a division of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) – with greater financial support, allowing 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.
Out-of-state vehicles will still be charged parking fees ranging from $7 to $22 depending on the park and time of day. Fees to reserve overnight campgrounds for both in-state and out-of-state visitors will still apply.
It is the two-tiered parking system that has Madison’s police chief worried.
“This will have a critical impact on the town,” Madison Police Chief Jack Drumm recently told the town’s Board of Police Commissioners.
The fact that there are only two lanes that lead into the busy state park from the nearby Interstate 95 has Drumm worried about traffic flow.
Drumm said he has been talking with state officials about traffic control, and he said he’s been told the plan is to try and have one lane for Connecticut residents who do not have to pay; the other lane would be used for people who have to pay to park.
Drumm said the state has told him it will have its own officers to try and help with traffic control but he predicted it could prove to be a traffic back-up problem for Madison – especially during the busy summer weekends.
“We will try to organize the chaos with minimal investment (from Madison taxpayers),” Drumm told the police commissioners.
State officials don’t believe the two-tiered parking system will be a big problem.
“DEEP communicates with town officials in all state park towns where issues arise,” Chris Collibee, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said. “As highlighted by the decision to close Squantz Pond this weekend, we take into consideration the concerns of our local officials.”
“With regards to Madison, we have met with the police department and other local officials, and will continue to, to address any potential issues that arise during the season,” Collibee said.
Collibee said the plan, despite what some Madison officials fear, isn’t to have separate lanes for the parking payers and non-payers. The governor’s spokesman added that the vast majority of visitors to Hammonasset are Connecticut residents.
“We have indicated that we do not intend to create different lanes coming into the park, and that we expect that lines into the ticket booths will move more quickly and smoothly than in the past because of the fact that most visitors will not need to pay a parking fee,” Collibee said.
Madison State Rep. Noreen Kokoruda has, in the past, expressed concerns about traffic control to state officials at various public hearings on related issues, stating she wasn’t sure if state officials understood how much of a burden taking care of the park and what the thousands upon thousands of visitors leave behind means to police and other departments in the town of Madison.
And those Madison employees, Kokoruda said, are paid by Madison taxpayers not the state.