Our Notebook

Riverfront Trail Access Imperiled

On December 28, John Hodge and I attended a meeting with Pete Firmin, who is the Manager of the James M. Robb state parks, which include Corn Lake, Connected Lakes and the Fruita section. John has posted on Facebook his impressions of the meeting; I’m putting it in my personal blog because it’s really too long to fit in the standard Facebook message format. You may feel free to add comments to the end of this message, or on the Bicycle Alliance Facebook page. You can also look at the rest of this personal blog if you care to…

Our meeting was cordial; I’ve known Firmin for years when we both worked in Rifle, and he’s a good guy. However, he seemed primed for this meeting with talking points from higher up, and I learned more from what he didn’t say than what he did. The following comments are my own opinion on this situation, and don’t represent the position of the Bicycle Alliance.

Colorado’s state parks have been notoriously underfunded, and unlike those of other states (Oregon and Missouri come to mind) have no dedicated funding stream. Accordingly, they persuaded the State Legislature to declare that they were an “Enterprise Fund” and could set their own rules and regulations without legislative input. The term “Enterprise Fund” is a way to end-run the strict requirements of TABOR, the so-called Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, which limits tax increases to those approved by the voters. It’s a legal fiction, but one that has received approval from the Supreme Court.

The last session of the State Assembly enacted SB 18-143 to increase the revenue available to the parks. It increases various fees and charges for hunting and fishing licenses, and also requires that pedestrians and bicyclists purchase a pass if they intend to enter a state park or recreation area. Here’s the relevant text:

33-12-106.5. Alternative means of park entrance – fees -rules.

This bill was approved unanimously and signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper on May 4, 2018. The Parks & Wildlife commission met in Burlington, Colorado on November 15-16, and adopted this fee schedule.

Individual daily pass fees are as follows:
a. A fee of $4.00 per person for any person of the age of sixteen or more years shall be charged for a daily pass for all visitors entering Barr Lake, Crawford, Colorado State Forest, Eldorado
Canyon, Elkhead Reservoir, Harvey Gap, Highline Lake, James M. Robb – Colorado River, Lory, Pearl Lake, Rifle Gap, Rifle Falls, Stagecoach, Steamboat Lake, Sweitzer Lake, Sylvan Lake,
Trinidad Lake, Vega and Yampa River State Parks, except those entering the park in a motor vehicle with a valid annual
parks pass or state parks annual hang tag pass

We learned that, with the exception of a couple of state parks in the Boulder area, only the Northwest Colorado region is substantially impacted this fee structure for pedestrian and cycle access to state parks, and that of all of the state parks, that portion which includes the Riverfront Trail is the most difficult to reconcile with the fee and pass structure. This may be due to the fact that an attempt to impose a fee at Cherry Creek or Barr Lake would probably get the attention of Bicycle Colorado and other vociferous Front Range lobbying groups, but if they’re able to successfully impose fees here, they will feel emboldened to expand fees those popular Denver area parks.

The current fee structure makes no sense. $4 is an exorbitant charge for cyclists and pedestrians who will have zero impact on the concrete pathway, and will at most use a little water and toilet paper along the way. Further, someone who drives in and parks her vehicle in the parking lot will pay an $8 fee for herself and three friends, but someone who rides her bike and doesn’t use a parking spot will pay $4 for one person.

It’s also unenforceable. If you enter the Fruita section from the north, or the Corn Lake section from the west, or the Connected Lakes section from the south or the west, there’s no way to pay the fee until you exit the park.

It also may be illegal. To the extent that cyclists and pedestrians are being taxed to use a public right of way constructed with taxpayer and donated funds (such as GOCO), the ruse of calling the parks an “Enterprise Fund” and thus exempt from TABOR may not pass muster.

It was poorly implemented. Although the statute referenced above suggests as a primary goal “partnering with stakeholders” (a fuzzy, meaningless phrase which seems to pop up everywhere), no one, including the Riverfront Commission, Mesa County and Palisade, Fruita or Grand Junction seems to have been aware of this decision until the signs went up. For the reasons John Hodge highlighted in his Facebook post and the Sentinel did in it’s well reasoned editorial, it’s also contrary to Hickenlooper’s stated intention to make Colorado the most cycle-friendly state, and will no doubt have a negative effect on tourism.

That still leaves the problem of tourists. How would you feel if you were visiting a city, rode a couple miles of unfamiliar, poorly signed road just to get to a trail (Parks and Wildlife Section), rode a few more miles of that trail, then, with no idea what stores, if any, are nearby (by the way, none!), you finally come upon a way to get water or a restroom you find out, nope, you gotta pay four bucks first.

My first thought would be to regret visiting such a crass, greedy, horrible city.

Any place that charges $4 to visitors to get water or use a restroom when there aren’t any remotely nearby alternatives is not an area worth visiting. And it’s certainly NOT “bicycle friendly”.

And just in case you’ve forgotten, Mesa County just spent a great deal of money building an underpass under 29 Road, and Fruita has spent a fortune improving the trail under I-70. The value of both of these improvements has been substantially reduced by this action.

Firmin is in a difficult spot. He’s trying to downplay the problem by indicating that he won’t enforce a fee structure (despite the signs) during 2019 for those merely “commuting” along the main stem of the Riverfront Trail. The manager at Highline Lake has said pretty much the same thing. These exceptions and interpretations to the fee aren’t memorialized anywhere, and for that reason, I suspect that a cyclist who gets a ticket would have a compelling defense in court.

But that doesn’t mean that the state won’t someday get its act together, and that the next parks manager may not try to install a toll booth. My greatest concern is that the state park management refuses to recognize that the Riverfront Trail was bought and paid for by others, and is a public right of way entitled to the same rights of travel as any public street, and is a vital element of the non-motorized transportation infrastructure in our county. The Riverfront Trail is not merely a parks amenity, and the use of a restroom is certainly not worth $4 per day.

1 Comment

  1. David Roper

    All of this needs to be brought immediately to the attention of Governor-Elect Jared Polis. This is not the kind of unpopular Colorado Parks policy he will want to have tarnishing his reputation as he enters his honeymoon period in the office of Governor.

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