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Beach park fees bring in $2 million
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CLEARWATER – From Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, Pinellas County has collected almost $2 million in parking fees at its three beach parks.

Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard presented an update to Pinellas County Commissioners at its Oct. 30 meeting, saying so far, there was no evidence that the new fees for parking at Sand Key, Fort De Soto and Fred Howard parks had affected the number of visitors.

Woodard said weather seemed to be a more determining factor than park fees, and the weather has been good in Pinellas, resulting in approximately 3.7 million visitors to the three parks through the end of September.

From January through September, 1.9 million visitors were recorded at Fort De Soto, 1.1 million at Fred Howard and 840,000 at Sand Key.

“That’s similar to previous years,” Woodard said. “It’s hard to tell if fees impacted the numbers. Weather plays a lot into that.”

He said revenue forecasts compared to actual collections for the period had come in “right at budget.”

He said parking fees, including the sale of annual passes had brought in $1.99 million. The extra money will go toward park maintenance and necessary capital improvement projects.

One upcoming project, slated to begin in January, is the addition of another entry lane at Fort De Soto to allow two points of entry, which should allow staff to process visitors more efficiently, Woodard said. He said the work should be completed within four to six weeks, meaning the new entry lane should be completed by the start of the spring season.

Implementation of an automated point of entry for season pass holders is another improvement staff is working toward to make entry into the park “more enjoyable and shorten the queue,” Woodard said. Preliminary plans center on the use of radio frequencies and a gate that opens automatically for season pass holders.

Good news is that concerns staff had of a backup of cars between the state’s tollbooth and the county’s park entrance didn’t happen. Woodard said 5,500 vehicles passed through the entry to Fort De Soto on Memorial Day with no backups.

Staff is continuing to work with the state on a plan for “shadow tolling,” whereby the county would include the state’s toll in with the parking fee for entry into Fort De Soto, meaning vehicles would only need to stop and pay one time.

The concern is that the state would increase its toll fee significantly, cutting into the revenue available for the park. The Florida Department of Transportation owns the land up to the bridge and beyond up to the county’s property, Woodard said. He said people currently are able to pay the toll, park on state property and then enter the park without paying the parking fee. He said talks include asking the state to make its property a no parking area.

“It’s all subject to ongoing discussion,” he said.

In other business:

• Commissioners received an update on progress toward updating its antiquated computer system. Commissioners leaned that while the project was “way behind schedule,” it was still “on budget” due to a “shift in the use of dollars.”

• Commissioners heard a report on plans for the aging Beckett Bridge in Tarpon Springs, including tearing it down with no replacement, making repairs to extend its life, and construction of a new bridge. Costs range from $7.6 million to $16 million. Public hearings will be scheduled in 2013.
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