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Commissioner proposes coutny tollbooth at state park's entrance

Walt Ponsford says tourists should flip bill for wearing out county roads
News Editor
    June 4, 2003 — An estimated 250,000 tourists visit Cove Palisades State Park each year, and Jefferson County Commission Chairman Walt Ponsford says he's prepared to ask each of them for a buck.
   Ponsford said tourists are wearing out portions of Jefferson County's beleaguered road system, and he is ready to build a tollbooth on the route leading to Lake Billy Chinook to collect what he characterizes as "user fees."
   "Let me have you understand, this park makes enough money that it supports other parks," Ponsford said. "And the people crossing your roads help wear them out and get in your way.
   "What you have here is a line to someone else's park."
   Ponsford unveiled his idea at a recent joint meeting between Jefferson County and the cities of Culver, Metolius and Madras.
   At that meeting, Ponsford's proposal received a lukewarm response, at best, from the city officials. He underscored that the real issue is road maintenance, and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department making money off tourists getting to their destination via county roads.
   "I don't want the tollbooth making people angry," Ponsford said. "But if we have to, I'm ready to force the issue."
   Ponsford said he has suggested to Cove State Park officials that they tack on a dollar to either their camping or day-use fees. Then, he'd drop the tollbooth idea.
   The Cove is the fifth-busiest state park in Oregon, generating more money than it spends. Most of its visitors come from the Portland and Salem areas, said Larry Miller, the state parks' Central Oregon area manager.
   "It turns a small profit, but we don't make a lot of money because it takes a lot to operate that park," Miller said.
   There are roughly 300 camping spaces at the Cove, charging between $17 and $25 a night, depending on amenities. Three day-use areas already have unmanned toll collectors to gather $3 one-time fees. Yearly day-use passes are available for $25.
   Miller said the idea of a county-run tollbooth has been floating around for several years.
   He said he's discussed with county officials a surcharge, among several other road-maintenance issues, but no conclusions have been reached.
   "We don't do that anywhere else in the state and it's probably not our first choice of ways to solve the problem," Miller said. "I guess we'd like to sit down and discuss it."
   The possibility of letting some of the county's paved roads return to gravel has been suggested in meetings during the past year.
   Jefferson County Administrator Mike Morgan has said local maintenance shortcomings are part of a nationwide struggle. Gas tax revenue, he said, has not kept pace with the cost of maintaining road systems.
   At the recent joint meeting between the county and its three cities on May 8, Ponsford's tollbooth proposal generated a healthy debate.
   Francis Ellmers, who sits on Culver's planning commission, told the commissioner his idea would amount to government shortchanging the public.
   "I won't go," Ellmers said. "There are going to be a lot of people denied river access, trail access because of these fees. I could pay it, but I won't."
   Ponsford responded that his proposal is nothing more than user fees.
   "In my opinion, if someone uses a facility — like the forest trails and what have you — the other people that never use it shouldn't have to pay for its upkeep," Ponsford said.
   Madras Mayor Rick Allen also jumped into the discussion, warning that he believed a tollbooth could damage a tourism industry that benefits the Madras, Metolius and Culver areas.
   "I think if this is one of our top three industries, it's unfair to just say that we have to really go after these tourists when we've got 600 more miles of roads being used for a whole lot of other purposes," Allen said.
   Ponsford told members of the Culver City Council that when the time comes, he is going to ask for their support, which could include letter writing.
   Culver Mayor Dan Harnden listened quietly to Ponsford's tollbooth idea, but admitted after the meeting he's not too big on it. "I'm a believer in user fees," the mayor said, "but I'm not in favor of that one."
   Ponsford has said any such proposal would include passes for Jefferson County residents to get through the tollbooth for free.
   Commissioners Bill Bellamy and Mary Zemke have not indicated their positions on the proposal, although Zemke did suggest at the May 8 meeting that a tollbooth could be limited to busy weekends.
   "You don't have to do this thing through the whole season, much less the whole year," Zemke said.
   Ponsford said he doesn't believe a tollbooth would deter tourists, and reiterated the goal is to maintain services, not just increase the county's coffers.
   "Someone has to pay for the services and things that we have," he said. "If we intend to let it degrade, look at the Roman Empire and look at what that cost them, literally."