The 121 parks that make up the Pennsylvania State Park system hope to receive a facelift in the coming years. However, funding for that facelift is contingent upon the passage of Governor Tom Wolf’s “Restore Pennsylvania” infrastructure plan—a $4.5 billion initiative funded through a new severance tax on unconventional natural gas. The State Legislature has rejected the establishment of a severance tax multiple times in the past.
According to officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the agency that oversees Pennsylvania’s State Parks, facilities throughout the system are in dire need of renovation. A number of picnic areas, restrooms, and bathhouses are old, outdated, and/or unsafe for public use.
A report issued in 2018 by the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation estimates that Pennsylvania’s state parks see about 40 million visitors and generate more than $1 billion in revenue per year. Most of the revenue is generated through tourist purchases of hotel rooms, dinners, souvenirs, and other amenities. Despite all of this activity, budget shortfalls in the Commonwealth have left the parks system with a backlog of capital improvement projects.
At the local level, revenue collected through the unconventional natural gas impact fee (Act 13) has been used to update and renew parks for years. Since the establishment of the impact fee, communities have used the funds to develop a trail and kayak launch in Springdale ($206,661), construct the Bellevue Borough Memorial Park ($225,000), and remediate the Plum Creek Trail in Oakmont ($150,000). In Washington County, Commissioners have used a combination of Act 13 impact fees dollars and monies generated by natural gas leases on public lands to fund a number of projects. Most recently, Commissioners approved the restoration of Henry House in Mingo Creek Park using money generated by shale gas development.
While the State government also receives funds from Act 13, the monies collected have not been allocated in the past for state park improvements. Under this new plan, Governor Wolf also calls for investments in a host of other areas including but not limited to high-speed internet expansions, flood control infrastructure measures, stormwater management systems, local road upgrades, blight demolition, and brownfield reclamation.
Given the Legislature’s resistance to the passage of a severance tax on shale gas development in the past, it is unclear whether the new infrastructure bill will gain traction.