Maryland has taken the first step toward replacing its two travel plazas on Interstate 95 north of Baltimore with expansive, airy welcome centers filled with amenities and operated by a company with years of experience serving travelers.
The two-year, $56 million project to rebuild Maryland House and Chesapeake House as a public-private partnership with Areas USA was approved Monday by the Maryland Transportation Authority board. The deal requires the approval of the Board of Public Works next month and review by the General Assembly.
The state would retain ownership and oversight of the plazas, while Areas USA would operate and maintain them through 2047. Areas USA would put up the $56 million, while the state estimates it would receive more than $400 million in revenue over the life of the contract.
"We think these will be landmark facilities. We think they will be extremely attractive and welcoming," said Beverley Swaim-Staley, the state transportation secretary.
Maryland House, which opened in 1963, handles about 2.8 million visitors each year. The Harford County building was expanded twice, the last time in 1990. The smaller Chesapeake House in Cecil County, which opened in 1975, handles about 2.1 million people annually.
Swaim-Staley said that the state has known for a decade that the plazas were "functionally obsolete," and that other Eastern Seaboard toll authorities were upgrading their facilities. Nearly two years ago, Maryland officials began looking for a partner, but the process bogged down and went nowhere. Then, last summer, officials began courting Areas USA.
If approved, the deal would be the second major public-private partnership entered into by the state; the first was the 2009 agreement between the Maryland Port Administration and Ports America to run the Seagirt Marine Terminal in Baltimore.
State officials say the travel plazas' reconstruction would create 400 jobs and involve 10 Maryland-based firms, eight of them owned by minorities or women. The construction timetable is aggressive and designed to minimize disruption for motorists, state transportation officials said.
"There's never going to be a time when at least one of the facilities is not open. That was an important factor for us," said Harold Bartlett, the authority's executive secretary.
Areas USA would take over management of both plazas in September and would immediately close Maryland House. Its replacement would be built on the old building's footprint and would reopen in December 2013, officials said. At that time, Chesapeake House would be torn down and the new one built on an adjacent site.
"The preliminary work on Chesapeake House will start before the building closes," Bartlett said. "They have told us that they have a way to get it done by June 2014 to be open by the heavy travel season and be able to capture that revenue."
Miami-based Areas USA is owned by Areas S.A., based in Barcelona, Spain. The company has 12,000 employees worldwide and had revenue of $812 million in 2010, according to its annual report. It operates food and retail shops in more than 60 airports worldwide. The U.S. branch holds concession contracts at 10 U.S. airports and is the sole provider of travel services on Florida's turnpike.
The company was interested in securing the Maryland job when the project was first put out to bid, said Xavier Rabell, CEO of Areas USA. But the state's request for proposals — a 700-page document that was amended seven times — was off-putting, he said.
Swaim-Staley agreed: "It wasn't a public-private partnership. It was more like our traditional lease models. We went back to the drawing board and immediately received a tremendous response."
Rabell praised Maryland transportation officials for listening to their own consultants and private business in pursuing the partnership.
"When we saw the new proposal, we said, 'Let's go for that,' " he said.
The designs of the two buildings are different. The new Maryland House will include lots of glass panels and an M-shaped roofline. Outside, groves of trees will shelter picnic seating for 160 to supplement the 750 seats in the food court.
The partial glass walls of the smaller and more contemporary Chesapeake House will curve like the letter "C" and be topped with a sail-shaped roof. A trail leading from the parking lot to a small hilltop will give visitors a view of the Chesapeake Bay.
"From the highway at night, with all that glass, they'll look like beacons," Bartlett said.