They’re not going to put in turnstiles at the entrances to Starved Rock State Park. There won’t be a per-person admission fee. But this time next year, you may have to pay to park at Starved Rock.

Thursday, state Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) filed legislation (Senate Bill 1310) that gives the Illinois Department of Natural Resources authority to charge admission to Starved Rock. If enacted, any fees would take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

But Rezin emphasized in a Friday telephone interview that any fee would be “nominal” and applied to vehicles only — a strategy she said has worked well in other states — with unmanned kiosks where visitors can pay. She said she insists on keeping park access free to local residents.

“This is just the beginning,” Rezin said of the just-filed legislation.

“We’re still trying to find an answer to the problem of finding money to fund the maintenance projects and make sure everybody has a great experience.”

Rezin said one of the motivating factors was the recent land annexation to Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks. The state recently acquired more than 2,600 acres from Buzzi Unicem to be annexed into the two parks, increasing the combined acreage by 55 percent. More land means more maintenance and Rezin felt the time was right to revisit funding.

The legislation has a long way to go before reaching the governor’s desk, but Rezin said she spoke with IDNR director Wayne Rosenthal and he supported the concept in principle.

“He seemed to be very positive toward the idea,” she said. “We have to make sure the logistics work out.”

Rezin noted details remain fluid and the bill requires amendment. The initial version, still available online, calls for pedestrian fees; but Rezin insisted the verbiage is wrong and will be amended shortly. Admission fees at Starved Rock have been discussed before, notably in 2012 when Springfield considered visitor fees but instead opted for a $2-per-car surcharge on vehicle registration. The General Assembly adopted the surcharge; license plate stickers climbed from $99 to $101 in 2013.

Former state representative Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) had proposed the surcharge as an alternative to charging admission at state parks.

“The parks fund would have run out of money during this fiscal year, so there would have been no money going forward,” Mautino said at the time. “The department had been cut so badly they had to use money from other sources — fishing licenses, hunting licenses — to shore up operations to the park and keep things open.”

And that was before Starved Rock began toppling its attendance records. A year after the surcharge took effect, Starved Rock welcomed 2.3 million visitors, a record that would be broken in each of the next three consecutive years, peaking at 2.8 million in 2017.

The resulting foot traffic and parking problems have overwhelmed park staff, the highways and the neighboring village of Utica as a whole.

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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Tom Collins is the NewsTribune Senior Reporter. He can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com.

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