For most of those who visit Starved Rock State Park, there usually is a moment of reckoning when one comes to realize how problematic the crowds and traffic have become.

For me, that moment arrived in summer 2017 when I phoned the park office for the July visitor totals: 411,708. My jaw hit the ground. There were entire years when Matthiessen State Park wouldn’t draw that many people. It averaged out to a staggering 13,280 visitors per day.

It’s too much, I remember thinking. It’s simply unsustainable.

And at that point I opened my mind to something — anything — to manage the crowds and mitigate the damage being done to the trails, underbrush and tourist infrastructure.

State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) has found a solution that at once is inspired and far-thinking and I throw my support wholeheartedly behind Senate Bill 1310.

As it currently stands — and the bill could modified repeatedly before reaching the governor’s desk — Rezin is calling for a $5 per vehicle parking fee, with a proposed waiver for La Salle County residents, to be administered by the Department of Natural Resources. Eighty percent of the proceeds would pay for infrastructure improvements and the remaining 20 percent would fund public safety.

After contacting the park office for data, I ran some numbers and crunched a projected revenue stream could be utterly transforming. Starved Rock has recently averaged more than 2.5 million visitors and roughly 450,000 vehicles per year. At $5 per car, parking could yield $2 million annually.

Based on Rezin’s proposed 4-to-1 distribution scheme, the proposed parking fee could generate $1.6 million a year for infrastructure and another $400,000 for public safety.

Complex superintendent Kerry Novak received that news happily, noting that Starved Rock’s current maintenance budget is somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000.

The potential revenue stream from parking not only would ensure proper trail maintenance — much of the work must be done by hand — but also fund capital improvements to make the park more accessible and preserve it for generations to come.

“We can spend it, believe me,” Novak said, by which he meant park staff could find innovative ways to protect the park and improve tourist facilities.

Novak correctly pointed out the fee schedule likely will be subject to change. DNR might have to implement a tiered parking system based on variables such as senior citizens/veteran discounts as well as exemptions for the handicapped.

Whatever the final totals, however, this inspired piece of legislation could not only ensure Starved Rock endures for generations to come but also strengthens it against a tourist onslaught that shows few signs of diminishing.

Starved Rock’s needs are urgent and demanded an innovative means of meeting them. Rezin deserves credit for rising to that call with imagination and foresight and the bill deserves to be advanced accordingly.

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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