I have seen the future of interstate rest areas, and they look a lot like a high-end mall food court.
Last week’s mid-winter school break had us flying to Florida from Baltimore, after a car ride to Washington, D.C., to deliver a footlocker of goods to Daughter No. 1.
This time, we drove the Interstate 95 corridor south through the Hudson Valley, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. I typically take a toll-free route to D.C. via Pennsylvania, but because we were traveling just after a big snowstorm, I didn’t want to chance bad weather or bad plowing in the mountains between Hazelton and Harrisburg.
A few miles after crossing Maryland’s long Millard Tydings Memorial Bridge over the Susquehanna River (which I always drive white-knuckled, alerted by the signs warning of strong crosswinds), it was time to stop for gas.
And there I beheld the future: the Maryland House Travel Plaza.
The last time I stopped at the Maryland House, it was a quaint, neo-Georgian building that dated to the 1963 opening of a then-new expressway between Delaware and the city of Baltimore.
But this new Maryland House was … breathtaking. Light and airy, roomy and modern, it mimicked a mall food court’s many dining and seating options. The standard coffee, pizza and burger providers are there, but so, too, is the higher end Phillips Seafood, with its “signature Maryland cuisine.” A bodega-like market sells fresh fruit, yogurt, string cheese and coconut water.
Retailers Brookstone, Orange Optix and Bijoux Terner share one corner of the 42,000-square-foot building; a state travel-information center occupies another.
The new plaza opened in mid-January after an 18-month, $30 million rebuild. A sister plaza on the north side of the Tydings bridge, Chesapeake House, closed when Maryland House reopened and will be similarly rebuilt this year.
The two plazas, which serve both northbound and southbound I-95, are among the country’s busiest, attracting 5.4 million motorists annually, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority, which partnered with Miami-based Areas USA on the overall $56 million project.
The hospitality company, part of a larger international concessionaire, won a 35-year contract to run the plazas. The state will get a piece of the action, an expected $400 million over the contract’s term.
Maryland isn’t alone in offering snazzy new rest areas, as we saw a week later, headed home from D.C.
The Delaware Welcome and Travel Center, located on the I-95 median near the Delaware Memorial Bridge to New Jersey, also was rebuilt as an airy food court, in partnership with another big-name concessionaire, HMSHost Corp.
The project, which took a year, was styled to “wow” motorists, according to state officials at the 2010 reopening, who put the expected annual visitor count at 4.5 million.
I certainly was wowed by the new plazas, which made other I-95 rest areas seem all the more dated and dingy. Please take note, New York and New Jersey.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.