Travel plazas not up to speed, Maryland says

October 06, 2006|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

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."

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