Record Appropriation Means Improved Facilities, Visitor Experiences Across the State
Breakthrough legislation passed by the 84th Texas Legislature is providing a significant increase in dedicated funding for Texas state parks. House Bill 158 dedicates 94 percent of state sales tax revenue attributed to sporting goods to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for state park facilities and operations, plus funds to help cities and counties across the state build and improve community parks.
“Every Texan deserves a world class state park system,” said Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, who co-authored HB158. “The dedication of the sporting goods sales tax to parks will transform our state park system, making it the nation’s best.”
In the 2016-2017 biennium, the money will be used for much-needed state park capital repairs and improvements, addressing a backlog of deteriorating facilities through water and wastewater projects, visitor center upgrades, restroom replacements, electric utility modernization and other improvements.
“We were able to lay out a case where state leaders could fully understand the scale and gravity of what we are confronting and agree on the value of investing in parks,” said Carter Smith, TPWD executive director, describing interactions with lawmakers in the session. “The legislative support for addressing the needs of local and state parks was simply overwhelming.”
“In the short-term, a big part of our efforts will focus on addressing capital repairs,” Smith said, “including repairing facilities damaged by floods, hurricanes and wildfires over the past seven years, such as the breached dam at Bastrop State Park and the popular visitor center at McKinney Falls State Park. Into the future, this session put in place a funding stream that’s been vitally needed for effective long-term budgeting and planning to serve our rapidly growing Texas population.”
For the current biennium, lawmakers allocated the full 94 percent of sporting goods sales tax revenue to TPWD, totaling $261.1 million for state park operations and capital repairs, local park grants and bond debt service. All told for this biennium, lawmakers allocated $90.6 million for state park capital repairs, far surpassing capital funding from previous sessions, including $11 million in 2014 and $23 million in 2012. As a result, the agency now has more than 80 capital repair projects to improve state parks over the next five years, using a combination of new appropriations and funding from previous sessions.
Several state park headquarters and visitor centers will be replaced, including at Mission Tejas and Tyler state parks. Nineteen restrooms will be replaced at state parks such as Pedernales Falls, Guadalupe River, Government Canyon, Ray Roberts Lake, Mustang Island, and Inks Lake. Modern utility upgrades, like water, wastewater and electrical system renovations, will take place at Big Bend Ranch, Brazos Bend, Copper Breaks, Fairfield Lake, Garner, Hill Country, Lake Brownwood, Lake Somerville, Lost Maples, Martin Creek, Palo Duro Canyon, Possum Kingdom and Stephen F. Austin.
Many state park facilities are historic, including dozens originally built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the new funding will address many needs at historic buildings and sites. For example, renovations are slated for the Balmorhea State Park historic motor court and the Huntsville CCC boathouse and lodge terrace walls. Other improvements include new roofs at Fort Leaton, renovation of the Kreische House and brewery structures, repair of the exterior plaster at Indian Lodge, planning and design for renovation of the Abilene CCC swimming pool and bathhouse, repairs to the Port Isabel Lighthouse and repair of the CCC rock tabernacle at Mother Neff.
Legislators specifically allocated about $2.7 million for the design and engineering phase of a new park, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, near the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Lawmakers also provided $500,000 for new cabins and other improvements at Fort Boggy State Park, located off I-45 between Dallas and Houston. And, $3.5 million is slated for a new visitor center at Franklin Mountains State Park near El Paso.
Boat ramp repairs to improve water recreation access will take place at Choke Canyon, Inks Lake, Ray Roberts Lake and Fort Parker. The group barracks will be renovated at Bastrop State Park. The dam at Huntsville State Park will be fortified and repaired, and five park staff residences that support onsite visitor safety and emergency response will be replaced or repaired.
Two of the highest profile projects of the biennium are the redevelopment of Galveston Island and further repairs to the Battleship TEXAS. At Galveston Island, a more than $15 million plan will redevelop the beach side of the park destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008. With funding from various sources (depending in part on future legislative appropriations), the transformational plan includes restrooms, boardwalks to the beach, tent camping platforms, multi-use campsites with electric and water service, group shelters and day use picnic shelters. A beach side visitor check-in station is also included, plus new roadways and parking areas.
Battleship TEXAS will benefit from $25 million in legislative allocations to repair and replace structural components of the ship, following an earlier phase of similar work completed in January 2015.
Many facility improvements will support park visitor experiences and programs. For example, new campgrounds at Sheldon Lake State Park in Houston that will be used by the Texas Outdoor Family program to help urban families learn outdoor skills like setting up a campsite, cooking on an open fire and various outdoor recreational activities. Besides improved facilities, in the future new and expanded educational and interpretive experiences will be possible with the increased funding.
“We are pleased to have been a part of ensuring that Texas’ parks have a predictable, robust source of funding through HB158 and we appreciate the legislature’s commitment to making our state parks something every Texan can be proud to call their own,” said David Teel, Texas Travel Industry Association president. “All Texans should be excited about the major updates and improvements coming at parks all across the state thanks to this increased funding.”
Project timelines for bidding, design, construction and final completion will vary based on complexity, and many will take years. However, some smaller, simpler projects will be completed much sooner, including several in 2016. TPWD plans to host groundbreaking and grand opening events at various parks across the state as projects get underway or are completed. A special web portal will provide updates on facility repairs and other improvements.