"I think it's important for the board to vote this up or down. We have a great deal. We don't want Areas to walk away," he said.

Franchot disagreed, noting that HMSHost's travel plaza experience goes back decades and encompasses many states while Areas is still building its first U.S. travel plazas, in Florida — a project that state worries has fallen behind schedule.

"The company that actually has the most experience is most likely to run a successful plaza" and return more revenue to the state, he said.

Swaim-Staley said she had talked to her Florida counterpart, who had expressed satisfaction with that state's contract with Areas, and that the Maryland Transportation Authority's executive secretary, Harold Bartlett, had visited all eight of the Florida plazas last week and came away impressed with the structures and the employees.

Tom Fricke, CEO of HMSHost, warned that a contract based on a flawed award might send the wrong message to the business community. He said that in 100 years in the hospitality industry, HMSHost had bid on thousands of projects across the country and had protested the outcome only once before.

O'Malley, a lawyer, said he didn't see any harm in waiting until the next board meeting to take up the contract.

But Areas USA's Rabell made a final — unsuccessful — pitch to the board.

"We are thrilled and ready to invest in Maryland," he said. "We work hard. We compete fairly. We were ranked No. 1. There is no reason to delay."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

  • Text TERPS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun Terps sports text alerts