State panel delays vote on travel plazas contract

The Board of Public Works has delayed for two weeks a vote on a contract worth up to a half billion dollars to build and operate the two travel plazas on Interstate 95 north of Baltimore.

The decision Wednesday came as a circuit judge in Montgomery County pondered a request from losing bidder HMSHost to temporarily halt any action by the state on the contract while the company reviews bid documents and state procedures.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, a member of the board, signaled his uneasiness with awarding a 35-year contract to Miami-based Areas USA with a legal challenge pending. He said the fact that Judge Eric Johnson did not immediately reject the HMSHost request "speaks volumes" and he called the contract "a leap of faith."

"Once we sign our names to this 35-year lease, there's no turning back," he told Gov.Martin O'Malleyand Treasurer Nancy Kopp, the other board members. "I don't have anything against Areas, but here's the hard fact … we're signing off with a company that has never done business in Maryland."

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley said the Areas proposal would reap profits for the state of up to $488 million over the life of the deal.

"It exceeds the expectations we set out at the beginning of the process," she said.

Areas proposes spending $56 million to replace Maryland House in Harford County and Chesapeake House in Cecil County and bring in new food and retail vendors.

HMSHost, based in Bethesda, proposes spending $75 million to replace the plazas, which it has been operating since 1987.

Swaim-Staley said Areas beat HMSHost in every aspect of the bidding and warned the board against delaying the vote.

"I believe we have a fiduciary responsibility to act," she said. "We have a terrific bid. We don't want to take the chance that we could lose this."

The board will take up the contract vote again on March 7.

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