Fort De Soto Park workers, visitors adjusting to new $5 fee

Five cars wait as ranger Patty Parker makes change for a $5 fee payer two Saturdays ago. A second collection lane is being considered.

LEAH MILLIS | Times

Five cars wait as ranger Patty Parker makes change for a $5 fee payer two Saturdays ago. A second collection lane is being considered.

TIERRA VERDE

It's almost impossible to miss the giant digital sign that greets visitors at Fort De Soto Park.

Two bright orange messages blink on the screen: "$5 entrance fee" and "Pay station ahead."

Officials implemented the per-car fee at the park, one of the county's most popular attractions, last month. Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs has a similar fee now.

The fees are meant to offset budget cuts from the past few years and keep up with park maintenance.

Still, despite the giant digital sign and a handful of others placed along the route to the park, some visitors haven't caught on.

Some think their SunPass will get them through. (It won't.) Others roll up to the makeshift toll station with a credit card. (The attendant can take only cash for now.) Still others complain about the 35 cent toll at the bridge that leads to the park. (It's controlled by the state, not the county.)

"We think it's going well," said Lyle Fowler, operations manager for south Pinellas parks. "Understandably this is somewhat of a learning experience for us. … The response has largely been acceptance."

Last January, one of the park's slower months, nearly 116,000 people visited. Attendance this year — likely because of warm weather — appears to be up, Fowler said, although exact totals won't be available for a couple of weeks.

Many people have opted to buy a $75 annual pass as opposed to the $5 daily fee, park supervisor Jim Wilson said. Seniors can get a pass for $55, and low-income residents can get one for $37.50.

At the simplistic cash station set up near the T-intersection where the roads lead to beach parking, park workers have settled into a system that keeps the line moving.

"We've got (the transaction) down to about three seconds flat," Wilson said.

On busy days, sometimes the single-lane line backs up.

"It depends on the day, time and weather," Fowler said. "If there's 30 cars, patrons are going to have to wait."

Officials are considering adding a second lane, especially as the spring break season approaches.

"The toll station as it is now is intended to be temporary," Fowler said. "The goal is to reduce the number of stops."

Right now, visitors to the park stop at the 35 cent state toll plaza at the bridge that leads to Fort De Soto. Once over the bridge and into the park, they pay $5.

That's what confuses many people, Fowler said.

He said the county is working with state transportation and turnpike officials to come up with a solution. One idea is for the county to take over the bridge tollbooth and collect the 35 cents on behalf of the state.

"At this point there is no date certain on what or when something might happen," Fowler said. "We're still probably months away."

Reach Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

Fort De Soto Park workers, visitors adjusting to new $5 fee 02/18/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 20, 2012 3:05pm]

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