PCH — For those who love the surf and sand, an initiative expected to be on the statewide ballot this November that would make parking free at Santa Monica State Beach may seem like a gift from the gods.

But it’s causing concern at City Hall, where officials say it could cut into Downtown parking revenues and complicate operations at local beaches.

Called the State Parks Access Initiative, the measure would require California vehicle owners to pay an extra $18 in annual vehicle license fees in exchange for free access to all state parks. Santa Monica’s 5,000 beach parking spaces are on state-owned land, so under the initiative California vehicle owners would no longer have to pay for daily passes at beach lots, which City Hall says bring in about $6 million per year and pay for 95 percent of beach operations and upkeep.

The initiative would raise about $500 million annually, enabling the State Department of Parks and Recreation to double the amount it spends on park operations. A portion of the money raised would be redistributed to local entities like Santa Monica that operate units of the park system.

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, a key proponent of the measure, said local operators would receive at least as much money under the initiative as they’ve been able to raise by selling daily parking passes.

“The idea here is that all units of the state park system will be better off than they are today in terms of maintenance and operations funding,” she said.

Barbara Stinchfield, City Hall’s director of community and cultural services, said she’s received assurance from the foundation that there would be a formal process for determining details of how revenues would be distributed if the measure passes.

A bigger concern, Stinchfield said, is that free parking at the beach might lead to people leaving their cars there when they travel Downtown to shop or go to work.

While a number of entities operate units of the state park system, Stinchfield said Santa Monica would face challenges implementing the potential new rules that many operators wouldn’t.

“We are the unit with the largest number of parking [spaces] and in a very dense urban area, so our situation is quite unique,” she said.

For example, most state parks aren’t located anywhere near a major public transit system. But many beach lots in Santa Monica are within walking distance of the planned Expo Light Rail stop at Fourth Street and Colorado Avenue, so commuters could try to avoid parking fees by heading to the beach instead of the pay-by-the-hour lots before getting on the train, Stinchfield said.

She said she’s held meetings with transportation management staff to identify the initiative’s potential impacts.

“The more we talk, the clearer it becomes; it’s very complex,” she said.

Her department has asked the City Council for permission to work with the State Department of Parks and Recreation and other impacted local entities to plan for implementing the initiative should it pass. The council is expected to give its approval at its meeting on Tuesday.

Goldstein said while the proposed change could pose implementation challenges, its operational impact shouldn’t be overstated. Operators will still collect daily parking fees from out-of-state users and will still be able to require appropriate usage of state-owned parking lots.

“There’s no expectation that these lots will go unenforced,” she said, adding that there’s “lots of room to work together to resolve whatever problems are unique to Santa Monica or are unique to any other park in the system.”

The proposed initiative received more than the required number of signatures to qualify for the Nov. 2 election but has yet to be certified. Goldstein said she expects the measure to receive certification within the next six weeks.

Of the $500 million raised, 85 percent would go to the State Department of Parks and Recreation and 15 percent would go to other state wildlife and ocean protection agencies.

Supporters say the measure is necessary to create a bigger and more reliable funding source for the California’s 278 state parks. Budget cuts, they said, are depriving parks of needed maintenance funding and have caused nearly 150 parks to shut down part-time or to scale back services.

The measure is also expected to restore $130 million in park funding to the state’s general fund, proponents said.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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