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OUTDOORS: Recreation Passport is paying off so far

Michigan’s innovative new state park funding is providing a glimmer of good fiscal news amid a backdrop of budget woes.

Since the Recreation Passport program was introduced in October 2010, almost 20 percent of Michigan drivers have opted to pay the $10 annual park pass fee during their motor vehicle registration renewal. The pass gives unlimited access to all of Michigan’s 98 parks and 1,000 boat launches. It replaced the previous system, which required the purchase of $6 daily park passes or $24 annual passes affixed to windshields.

In order to match revenue from the old system, 17 percent of drivers need to purchase the new $10 permits. At 20 percent, the parks are getting about $1 million more to work on backlogged park infrastructure improvements. There are $300 million in backlogged needs.

Ron Olson, chief of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Parks and Recreation Division, said the numbers are increasing as drivers become more familiar with the system. He hopes to achieve 25 percent by the fiscal year end, with a long-term goal of 50 percent. A 25 percent purchase rate would give the parks system close to $5 million additional funds to meet park needs.

Passport revenue is allocated by a prescribed formula: Half of it goes for infrastructure, 30 percent to operations and maintenance, and 10 percent to local governments. The remainder goes to forest recreation (7 percent); cultural and history education (2.75 percent) and marketing (0.25 percent). Some initial improvements funded with the new money will be apparent, but others may be harder to spot. For example, maintenance to a sewer line is essential but invisible. “Visitors might think ‘Well, the toilet flushed last time I was here, and it flushed this time, too,’” says Olson.

The passports are purchased from the Secretary of State during car registration renewal or at state park offices. When purchased during car registration, “Recreation Passport” will be printed on the upper left corner of the vehicle registration sticker, letting park employees know the pass has been purchased.

Olsen said Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and her staff members have been instrumental in encouraging vehicle owners to consider the passport endorsements at SOS offices throughout the state. “We’ve had great cooperation from them,” he said.

Purchasers of the passport will also reap benefits of the Passport Perks program, receiving discounts from over 200 Michigan businesses. Businesses range from beauty salons to sporting goods stores to tax preparers. Business owners recognize that parks bring business, so participating in the program is mutually beneficial for them, Olson said.

“[The program] will take a few years to build up and become impactful,” said Olson. “It will take a little while to make this significant.”
-Thea Hassan, MEC
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