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August 14, 2009

Toll authority plods ahead with travel plaza project

 

 

                                                                                           Sun photo/Lloyd Fox

A visit last week to the Maryland House, the venerable travel plaza along Interstate 95 near Aberdeen, brought back memories  of an October 2006 meeting there with Trent M. Kittleman.

Littleman, then executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, outlined  ambitious plans to replace the vintage 1963 travel plaza and its younger Cecil County counterpart, the Chesapeake House.

But  here it is 2009, and there were few signs of change from three years before. Nor had I heard much mention of the project in recent years.

Authority spokewoman Teri Moss assured me this week that the project has not fallen by the wayside. She said the state is developing a solicitation for a contractor to design, build and operate the facilities. She said she expects the request for proposals (RFP) to hit the streets late this year or early in 2010.

"We were hoping to get the RFP out earlier, but this is a new concept for us," Moss wrote.  "We’ve been careful to come up with a document that would generate a great amount of interest and from the best companies – that would give us the most out of the proposals."

Moss said the authority hopes to have chosen a contractor and to have given it the green light to proceed by the end of next year.

To read the full 2006 article, click below.

 

   From the sunset of the Studebaker to the heyday of the Hummer, motorists traveling on Interstate 95 have been taking their bathroom breaks near Aberdeen in a distinguished-looking, red-brick, neo-Georgian building called the Maryland House - the busiest travel plaza in the United States.

    Since the Ford administration, drivers have had a second choice of pit stop on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway - the oh-so-'70s Chesapeake House in Cecil County, just to the north. It's not as busy - or as attractive - as its older counterpart, but it consistently ranks in the top five nationally.But now Maryland has pronounced both facilities obsolete and is laying plans to replace them.

    In its newly released 2007-2012 spending plan, the Maryland Transportation Authority has budgeted $1.8 million for planning and engineering of new travel plazas expected to open early in the next decade.

    "The Maryland House and Chesapeake House Travel Plazas have aged to the point in which a full redesign and reconstruction is necessary to adequately meet public demand over the next 20-30 years," the authority says in the draft of the budget plan it will submit to the General Assembly.

    By moving to replace its aging travel plazas, Maryland is joining a national trend among states that built toll roads in the mid-20th century. Along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, for instance, the same company that runs the Maryland and Chesapeake houses is pouring $100 million into a comprehensive rebuilding of 18 travel plazas over the next five years. New Jersey, Maine and Ohio are also among the states to build new plazas in recent years.

    The cost to Maryland of replacing the plazas - familiar rest stations to nearly everyone who drives the Northeast corridor between Washington and New York - has yet to be determined because much of the burden is likely to be borne by a corporate partner. With its two-decade contract with Bethesda-based HMSHost Corp. due to expire in late 2008, the authority plans to invite potential contractors to submit proposals next year for two travel plazas for the 21st century.

    What those proposals might yield is difficult to say, but it's certain that the result will be far different from the Maryland House that opened in November 1963 when President Kennedy dedicated the Maryland highway - one week before his fateful trip to Dallas. The next year, the toll road portion of I-95 northeast of Baltimore was named after the slain president.

    When the Maryland House opened, with an estimated construction cost of $660,000, the pace of American life was so leisurely that the plaza included a restaurant with fine china and white-linen tablecloths. But the debut of the facility, which at the time was the only dining spot on a 100-mile stretch of highway between New Jersey and Washington, was followed by controversy over its monopolistic food prices - as much as $2.65 for a steak sandwich.

    The company that ran the restaurant backed off its high prices, cutting the price of a hamburger from 50 cents to 40 cents under pressure from state officials.

    Over the years, the building has undergone retrofit after retrofit and now includes a lineup of name-brand fast-food providers as well as Internet access and Wi-Fi capability. With cell phones now ubiquitous, what was once a second-floor bank of pay phones has been turned into a conference room. Two wings have been added to the original building, including one that provided a much-needed second entrance.

    But Trent M. Kittleman, executive secretary of the transportation authority, said the building is too small to handle its traffic load and has become prohibitively expensive to maintain. She added that it's hard to keep the restrooms clean in a building that was designed in the 1950s.

    "That's when you obviously need to look at a new structure," she said. "If we waited til it's as bad as it might be, it's too late."

    Recent visitors to the travel plazas were ambivalent about the proposed replacements. Some, especially at the Maryland House, said they worried that any change would be for the worse.

    Kevin Smith of Kannapolis, N.C., said the Maryland House - with its shady stand of old trees on its east lawn - was the classiest travel plaza he has seen in his travels between his hometown and the Philadelphia area.

    "This style gives it a taste of what Maryland's all about. It gives it a character," he said. "The whole style is a classic. It says simpler times."

    But, for Jean Hammond of Fairfax, Va., who was slowly struggling down a Maryland House ramp with a walker, access issues trumped aesthetics.

    "If you use one of these or a cane or crutches, it's a long way" to the parking lot, said Hammond, 68.

    Anne Wallace of McLean, Va., who declined to give her age but said she had been traveling on the Kennedy highway for about 30 years, said an upgrade of the Maryland House is long overdue.

    "The facility gets very, very crowded," she said. "On a holiday weekend in the summer, this place can just be jammed."

    While the Maryland House is hardly in shambles, it is showing its age. The dark tile floor rumbles every time a worker pushes a cart across it to resupply the restaurants, which lack a rear service entrance. The concrete on the stairs to the second floor is cracked. And from the main entrance, the sight lines make it difficult to see the Starbucks - which nevertheless has become one of the busiest coffee shops in the chain, according to HMSHost.

    Kittleman, the transportation authority chief, said that while the structure will be rebuilt - perhaps retaining some original elements - its appearance will be preserved.

    "The whole look of the Maryland House is something Marylanders love, and we're going to keep that look," she said.

    The Chesapeake House, which opened in 1975 and does about 75 percent of the business of the Maryland House, probably won't inspire similar affection. Unlike its stately elder sibling, it is festooned with garish fast-food signage. Customers variously described it as "70-ish" or as resembling a public high school. It was originally designed for cafeteria-style dining.

    "It looks like a monument to the glory days of large-scale interstate construction," said Ken Gordon, who was traveling to Philadelphia from his home in Fairfax, Va.

    Gordon, 38, was one of several customers who remarked on the confusing layout of the Chesapeake House, where northbound customers frequently emerge on the southbound side of the building. "Every time I am in here, I do a lap to find the men's room, I have to do a lap to find the Burger King and a lap to find the exit," he said.

    Transportation authority officials say that even though the Chesapeake House is a decade younger than the Maryland House, it is in worse condition because it was not built as sturdily. For instance, they said, the Chesapeake House was built with a shingle roof while the Maryland House was given slate.

    (While the slate lasted longer, the Maryland House's roof needs replacing, officials said. It will get a new shingle roof, because it isn't expected to be around long enough to justify slate.)

    Officials of the transportation authority, which runs Maryland's toll bridges and tunnels as well as the Kennedy highway, will be seeking proposals to redevelop the travel plaza, including gas stations and parking areas.

    A major concern is providing enough space to accommodate growing truck traffic in the I-95 corridor. Officials say that on busy weekday nights, parked trucks frequently back up all the way to the highway on the shoulders of the four quarter-mile ramps leading to and from the plazas.

    "It's not safe for the traveling public, and its not safe for [truckers] to be walking in that area," said Vern Bingham, HMSHost's general manager of the facilities.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:31 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Maryland toll facilities
        

Comments

Across the border, Delaware will be closing its service plaza next month to reconstruct it by next summer. The plans include popular fast food chains, an open-air atrium, a proprietary gift shop, and stalls for trucks where they have access to air conditioning, TV, and Internet without having to idle their trucks.

no money to build a rail tunnel through the city, but millions to spend on glorified port-a-potties for a stretch of land no one lives in. way to go mta!

COMMENT: In order to maximize the confusion of Marylanders, the General Assembly has created two entities with the initials MTA. But the agency responsible for the travel plazas, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA), is not the same as the agency responsible for the tunnel decision on the Red Line. That is the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA).--Michael Dresser

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.
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