The money is up, but traffic is down. The impact of Cameron County’s decision to hike daily vehicle passes to its coastal parks from $5 to $10 is becoming clearer. For the first six months of the year, which is the extent of county records available at this time, the county has pocketed an additional $1 million in entrance fees over the same period in 2015.
After a surprising first quarter of this year following the fee hike, traffic at all the county’s coastal parks — Isla Blanca, Andy Bowie, Beach Access 5-6 and Adolph Thomae Jr. — showed sharp increases in traffic, from 37 percent at Thomae to 41 percent at Isla Blanca.
But in year-over-year numbers for the second quarter of 2016, the number of vehicles entering the county’s coastal parks has tanked, with Isla Blanca down 21 percent, Andy Bowie down 18 percent, Beach Access 5-6 down 15 percent and Thomae down 1.5 percent.
“We are confident that over the course of the next few years we will continue to see record numbers of traffic and visitors to South Padre Island and our coastal parks,” County Parks Director Joe E. Vega said via email. “It is a premier destination and the jewel of the Texas Gulf Coast, so we are not concerned at all with people coming to enjoy this gem.
“The numbers may not be indicative of the amount of people coming to enjoy our beaches but we monitor the flow of traffic and people at all our entrances which leads us to conclude that people will keep enjoying our beachside amenities,” Vega added.
County officials have said the additional revenues gained by doubling the daily vehicle fee would be used to enhance the county’s parks, and are confident park-goers eventually will feel the fee hike was worth it.
In fact, the county is in the process of installing a new boat launch with additional parking for trucks with trailers at Adolph Thomae, although most of the $725,000 is coming from grant money from the state.
But with vehicular traffic at the beach parks down significantly, presumably fewer people are going to the parks.
Experts on parks financing, like Dr. John Crompton, a faculty member at Texas A&M University’s Recreation, Parks and Tourism Sciences department, say it boils down to a philosophical issue.
The two principals which govern pricing for public parks are the benefit principle that those using the facility should pay for it, and the ability to pay principal, which holds nobody should be excluded from a public facility because they can’t afford it.
“The challenge is to reconcile those two underlying principles of public parks,” Crompton said Friday. “In this case, people from outside the county, you should charge them the maximum amount the market will bear because these people are paying no taxes in Cameron County.
“Our benefit principle says those who can afford to pay should … I’m assuming if the parks are breaking even, the taxes they’re using to foot that bill are property and sales taxes,” he said.
“Those are regressive taxes, and both of these taxes hurt poor people the most,” he added.
So in effect, he said, if you charge less to use parks you increase the percentage of sales and property taxes that need to be allocated to parks, thus having a disproportionate impact on poor residents of the county.
Crompton suggests the county provide a mechanism for those who may not be able to afford the daily parks fee, perhaps by granting parents with children who receive free meals or subsidized meals a break on the fee.
“My own theory is it should be a nominal rate of a couple of dollars or something, but not ten dollars,” Crompton said.
Crompton says he is sympathetic to the parks pricing dilemma county officials face, saying his time on the city council in College Station allowed him to experience how briskly the political winds can blow.
And pricing to allow parks to operate on a financially sound basis yet be available to all residents of a community is, he concedes, “a conundrum.”
For his part, parks director Vega feels the additional revenues for the county’s parks, and the improvements that will be possible because of those, will eventually be recognized by all who visit the county’s facilities.
“And as we improve our parks to have added attractions and nicer areas for families to spend their day, we will see an increase in park-goers,” Vega said.