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Banff's mayor blasts Parks on 2017 free passes

Banff’s mayor has fired a shot at Parks Canada for failing to come to the table with real solutions on how to handle increased visitation and traffic next year when entry to Banff National Park is free.
Parks Canada has offered free entry to all national parks to Canadians in 2017 in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary. The decision has caused concern for Banff
Parks Canada has offered free entry to all national parks to Canadians in 2017 in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary. The decision has caused concern for Banff residents about how the already congested resort community will deal with increased traffic as a result.

Banff’s mayor has fired a shot at Parks Canada for failing to come to the table with real solutions on how to handle increased visitation and traffic next year when entry to Banff National Park is free.

Getting nowhere with local Parks Canada managers so far, Mayor Karen Sorensen is seeking a meeting with Catherine McKenna, the federal environment and climate change minister, whose portfolio includes Parks Canada.

“I am deeply disappointed that Parks Canada has not come to the table on offering ideas in partnership with us to manage this high probability of increases in traffic in 2017,” she said during a council meeting, Monday (Oct. 24).

“At the end of the day, the Town of Banff is not actually the draw. The world heritage site and Banff National Park are the draw and we are here to service those visitors,” the mayor added.

“I get asked consistently, a few times every week, by residents about what’s going to happen in the summer of 2017 with free entry to all national parks, including Banff … I’m very concerned.”

Waiving entry fees to national parks across the country in 2017 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation was part of the Liberal government’s election platform. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made it part of Minister McKenna’s mandate.

The number of visitors to Banff National Park continues to grow every year, and it’s expected approximately four million people will have visited Banff by the end of this year -– and most arrive here in private vehicles.

Banff gets extremely crowded in summer months and traffic congestion causes immense frustration for both residents and visitors who get stuck in traffic, not wanting delays and parking problems to be their experience in Canada’s flagship national park.

Sorensen said the offer of free entry is a nice idea, but added no thought was given to the real logistics of managing increased visitation and traffic, particularly for popular parks like Banff and Jasper.

“When this was announced, I guess I assumed that Parks Canada would be working with us on how to manage the consequences of this, and I was assuming that would happen very quickly,” she said.

“To date this has not been the case and we are actually seven months away from the May long weekend in 2017.”

Dave McDonough, superintendent of Banff National Park, said Parks Canada met with Town of Banff officials in spring and looks forward to meeting again now that the busy summer season is over.

“I don’t want to comment directly on what (the mayor) may or may not have said because I wasn’t there,” he said. “We’re looking forward to sitting at a table and working with them again to prepare for 2017 and beyond.”

Town of Banff data released this week shows that from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, the cumulative total vehicle count per day count increased by eight per cent from 4.7 million in 2015 to 5.1 million in 2016.

For July and August, the total count increased by seven per cent from 1.5 million in 2015 to 1.6 million in 2016 -– and 49 of 62 days in July and August were over the congestion threshold of 24,000 vehicles per day, which is an increase of 20 days from 29 in 2015.

Sorensen said intercept parking lots, combined with a shuttle bus system to get visitors downtown, are just one possible solution the Town of Banff continues to be interested in exploring, for 2017 and long-term.

“I think the topic of intercept parking lots absolutely has to be part of the discussion, but where they go is a separate discussion. My first choice is to have intercept parking within town limits, but it’s just a challenge,” she said.

“I’m pursuing Parks Canada working with the Town more effectively than is currently taking place.”

McDonough said the RV drop off near the industrial compound is one possible solution for intercept parking in 2017.

“We’re open to discuss on a temporary basis the use of an existing parking lot that may help,” he said.

Beyond that, McDonough said Parks is looking to improve education campaigns to manage visitor expectations when coming to the parks.

“Some areas we’ve looked at relate to improving our pre-trip planning information for day visitors from Calgary so we can help with proper expectations prior to arriving in the park,” he said.

“We want them to have the best understanding of what time to come, what to expect at key times of the day and at key attractions.”

Meanwhile, there has been no available information on how Parks Canada plans to make up about $60 million in lost revenue from giving out free park passes in 2017. Individual parks get to keep revenues raised at their gates.

Fees are about $136 for an annual family pass or daily passes are about $10 per adult.

Parks Canada’s total revenue from entry fees across the country for fiscal year 2014-15 was $59.5 million, $20.7 million of which was from the sale of the Parks Canada annual discovery pass. The majority of the remaining revenue is from daily entry fees.

According to Parks Canada, the entry revenue for all of the mountain parks, including Banff, was approximately $38.8 million for the same time period, with discovery passes making up $16 million of that number.


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