Judge clears way for I-95 travel plaza construction

A Montgomery County circuit judge cleared the way Friday for the state Board of Public Works to vote next week on a half-billion-dollar contract to rebuild and operate the two Interstate 95 travel plazas north of Baltimore.

Judge Eric Johnson lifted the restraining order he issued nearly two weeks ago, saying state case law did not allow him to interfere with the board's constitutional authority to act on the contract, which is expected to be awarded to Miami-based Areas USA.

But he delayed ruling on a motion by the Maryland Transportation Authority and Areas to move the case to Circuit Court in Baltimore, where the majority of the defendants have offices and where all of the bid evaluation work took place.

Losing bidder HMSHost, based in Bethesda, believes the transportation authority failed to follow its own procedures when it selected Areas to build and operate Chesapeake House in Cecil County and Maryland House in Harford County and allowed the company to unilaterally sweeten its offer.

Areas has proposed investing $56 million to replace the travel plazas and return to the state rent and revenue totaling as much as $488 million over the 35-year life of the deal. In addition, Areas has agreed to spend an additional $44 million to $48 million on capital improvements.

The Board of Public Works, consisting of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, voted unanimously to postpone the vote until March 7 to give all parties the opportunity to make their arguments in court.

Philip Andrews, a lawyer for Areas, said case law on separation of powers has established that courts cannot stand in the way of another branch of government doing its job. The proper court challenge, he said, comes after the Board of Public Works' vote.

"There's lots of ways to challenge the contract after it's awarded," he said.

Johnson agreed, saying contract votes are challenged all the time.

On the motion to move the case to Baltimore, Johnson urged all parties to come to an agreement. He noted that the city appears to be "an appropriate venue" but added that the court, plaintiff and defendants have already spent a great deal of time and effort on the case in Montgomery County and would have to start all over again.

"It won't be an easy transition," he warned.

Areas CEO Xavier Rabell said he was pleased with the decision and hoped the Board of Public Works would act "without further delay" so that construction can begin in September.


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