Discover Pass doesn’t raise the cash state expected

TACOMA — Sales of a new state park parking pass — the Discover Pass — is not raising the cash officials expected.

Lawmakers have mostly cut off parks from taxpayers’ help, whether or not the new $30 annual parking fee can fill the gap.

If the program fails, the parks agency would have to find new money or close most of the state’s 116 parks, The News Tribune reported Sunday.

Some officials hope sales of the pass will improve during its first spring. But they worry people will continue to dislike the parking pass because it can’t be transferred from one car to another. That issue should come before the Legislature this winter.

“I heard from dozens of people personally that just said, ‘I’m not buying it,”’ said state Sen. Kevin Ranker, who is writing a proposed update to the law he sponsored that created the pass.

Other factors could pull Discover Pass sales numbers down or up: weather, more aggressive marketing, and an option for drivers to buy the pass when renewing their license tabs, which they have been able to do only since late August when notices went out to drivers whose tabs expired in October.

The passes brought in $6.5 million from July 1 to Sept. 30, with parks taking the biggest share at 84 percent and the rest divided equally between the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The state hopes to raise at least $64 million in the first two years. State parks officials concluded from surveys that’s how much visitors would pay.

Seasonal differences aside, that’s an average of $2.7 million a month. Proceeds met that goal in July but dipped below it in August and then plummeted in September as summer faded.

Sales of $30 annual passes are the problem, not the $10 day-use passes.

Officials estimated about three drivers would pay for a full year for every two who paid for a single day. In practice, the day passes are selling better. More than 156,000 annual passes were sold in three months, but day passes beat projections with more than 185,000 sold.

Plenty of drivers hearing about the pass for the first time upon arriving in the woods decide to take the cheaper option, said Jennifer Quan, manager of Fish and Wildlife’s Lands Division.

“A lot of people didn’t know they needed the pass,” Quan said.

As the program goes on, she predicted, it won’t be such a surprise and drivers may plan ahead.

In Oregon, the daily fee is still by far the most popular option 18 years after the state debuted an annual pass. Day passes are cheaper there, at $5.

Some may park and bet they won’t be caught. DNR, which manages places such as Mount Si, Tiger Mountain and Capitol State Forest, has handed out just six tickets to violators.

The agency has just eight officers to cover 1.9 million acres of Discover Pass territory statewide. It has “focused on education and compliance” by talking to thousands of drivers, spokesman Bryan Flint said.

Park rangers and Fish and Wildlife police officers have together handed out more than 2,900 tickets. Revenue goes to the courts.

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