2023 A Look Back: Meter Maid Award

Automated fee machines dispense parking tags at 13 lots  in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Automated fee machines dispense parking tags at 13 lots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cory Vaillancourt photo

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has earned this one for its decision to begin charging for parking, effective March 1 this year. 

The parking tag program was extremely controversial in communities surrounding the park, with the governments of all six surrounding counties and the N.C. House of Representatives issuing formal statements in opposition. Since it was established in 1934, the park has always been free to enter and visit. Legislation and deed restrictions prevent the park from charging an entrance fee, but rapidly increasing visitation combined with stagnant federal funding meant the park needed another revenue source to do its job well.

The new fee represents a monumental change in park policy but has received high levels of support. Of those who commented on the proposal, 51% were in favor and only 15% were opposed. However, of commenters who lived in one of the park’s six neighboring counties, 25% were opposed and only 25% were in favor.

Nevertheless, the park says compliance has been even higher than anticipated during this first year of the fee’s implementation, and that revenues are coming in strong. Between the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1, 2022, and June 30, the park collected double the total parking and camping fees it had during the entire previous fiscal year — despite the fee having been in effect for only four months at that time. Funds will be used for a variety of purposes, with hiring to make up for long-standing staffing shortages a top priority.

The trophy for this award is shaped like a parking meter, but that might be a bit misleading. Parking tags come in the form of printed pieces of paper or window decals, so the beauty of the Smokies will not be marred by metal meters.

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