Sno-park permits pay to plow roads
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
To appreciate Oregon's go try to park where there isn't one.
Sure you might be able to clamber over, or smash through, the snow berm the plows have pushed up along the road shoulder.
Just don't expect to get back out with dry feet or warm hands.
Oregon's sno-park system, since its creation in the mid 1970s, has spared who knows how many skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and snowmobilers from the cold, damp and usually exhausting ordeal of trying to extricate a vehicle mired in powder (or worse, in slush) to the tops of its tires.
But the system has pulled off an even more impressive feat than that.
It has helped Baker County's only ski resort survive.
"No sno-park system, no , basically," said Rick Pignone, general manager at the ski area in the Elkhorn Mountains about 34 miles northwest of Baker City.
Money from sno-park permit sales pays to scrape snow from four public parking areas near Anthony Lake, and also to keep passable the highway that leads from Baker Valley to the resort.
The snow-plowing tab has reached as high as $122,000 for a single winter, Pignone said.
If Anthony Lakes had to cover that cost from its own coffers, he said, "we would have to drive ticket prices up to the point where the economy couldn't handle it. I just don't see how it could be done."
Fortunately for Ski Anthony Lakes, skiers, along with other winter recreationists, have proved that they're willing to pay to prevent their favorite parking lots from becoming snowbound.
They pay about $1.2 million per year on average, in fact, said Karen Morrison, who works for the Oregon Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees the state's network of about 100 sno-parks.
The drivers who dole out those dollars reap obvious benefits from the expenditure, too, which makes the sno-park system quite different from, say, federal gas taxes.
Fill your tank at the pump and as far as you know some of your pennies might pay to repave an off-ramp in Tupelo or Topeka.
But fork over money for an Oregon sno-park permit and you can be certain your cash will pay for one of three tasks in the state, Morrison said plowing snow; making sure people who park in a sno-park bought a permit; or maintaining existing sno-parks or building new ones.
"It's a self-supporting program," Morrison said. "The money collected from permit sales pays for snow removal."
Pignone, who is a member of ODOT's winter recreation advisory committee, calls the sno-park system "fabulous."
"It definitely pays for itself," he said. "As far as I'm concerned it's one of the better government-run programs that I am aware of."
Although Oregon law requires ODOT to use money from permit sales for sno-park-related work, the law also allows the agency to maintain a cash reserve, Morrison said.
During dry or warm winters, for example, when snowplows stay silent for long periods, ODOT sometimes brings in more money from permit sales than it needs to pay people to push snow away from parking areas.
ODOT can then spend those surplus dollars in years when a barrage of blizzards bombards Oregon's mountains.
Last winter, for example, snow was more scarce in most of the state than in any winter since 1976-77.
Drivers bought fewer permits than average about $950,000 worth, Morrison said.
But the paucity of snow also pared the plowing bill to about $645,000, she said.
ODOT officials stockpiled the $305,000 that was left into the sno-park reserve fund, which totaled about $843,000 as of Oct. 31, Morrison said.
Most of the sno-park money pays ODOT employees, who plow parking areas in conjunction with their regular snow-removal duties along the state's highways, she said.
In some cases, however, sno-park revenue pays a private contractor.
One of those cases is Ski Anthony Lakes.
Ski Anthony Lakes' owners hire a contractor to plow the road that leads from Baker Valley to the ski area, and adjacent parking areas where people who don't necessarily patronize the resort snowmobilers and snowshoers, for example park. ODOT then reimburses the ski area for the cost, Morrison said.
However, sno-park dollars are available only from Nov. 15 through April 30 the same period during which drivers must display a permit.
That limitation has created a conundrum for Pignone in a couple of recent years, including this one, when snow started to accumulate before Nov. 15.
In such a situation the ski area operators, if they want to welcome skiers for early-season runs, have to pick up the tab for snowplowing.
Due to the vagaries of autumn weather, they usually decide not to risk it.
Earlier this November, however, a heavy fall of snow forced Pignone to shell out about $600 to plow the road so employees could get to work.
Pignone said he dislikes only one part of the sno-park program.
For the past three years, he said, ODOT has required ski areas that sell permits to their customers, including Ski Anthony Lakes, to buy a supply of permits in advance.
In the past, Pignone said, ODOT gave permits to ski areas and let the businesses reimburse the state as they sold the permits.
The problem, he said, is that ski area officials have to guess how many permits they'll need, and then hope they don't run short during a busy weekend.