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The right fix for I-95 travel plazas

Pot holes are not liberal or conservative. Nor are bridges, sewer lines, roads, airports or tunnels. They are our infrastructure. And much of it is deteriorating, in Maryland and across the nation.

There is simply not enough money. At least, not enough public money. And so, most state governments simply put off the new construction and slow down the maintenance. This is what happened with the state's two crumbling travel plazas along Interstate 95.

What to do? A recent example of a creative solution to the state's infrastructure problem is instructive.

Faced with a crisis confronting the Port of Baltimore and without funds to deal with it, the O'Malley administration engaged the private sector, creating an unusual public-private partnership — an approach appealing to Republicans but often resisted by members of his own party.

Full disclosure: I'm a Democrat and a Maryland Port Authority commissioner. I was appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley as the port was about to face one of its most compelling challenges: the widening of the Panama Canal. Our harbor simply did not have the capacity to handle the new supertankers being constructed to take advantage of the canal's new width.

After months of discussion, bids and negotiations, the governor approved a $245 million partnership with Ports America Chesapeake to develop a new berth at the Seagirt Marine Terminal in Dundalk, making Baltimore one of the two East coast ports capable of receiving the larger oceanic vessels crossing through the wider Panama Canal.

It was, in many ways, a policy breakthrough — transferring the construction and operating risk to a private company and jump-starting a project that would have languished for lack of funds. The Seagirt Agreement required Ports America Chesapeake to construct a 50-foot berth, to improve the terminals facilities and infrastructure, to purchase the larger cranes required to handle the larger containers, and to operate and maintain the site at their expense. The agreement also requires the company to pay the state a share of its revenue, increasing that share as the terminal shipping traffic grows.

Three months after the deal was signed, Ports America broke ground. The terminal is well on its way to completion, two years before the Panama Canal is widened. Last month, the governor welcomed another major shipper to the port, meaning three of the world's top five container companies now use our terminal.

And now come the I-95 travel plazas owned by the State Department of Transportation. Words like run-down, dilapidated and uncomfortable are too generous to describe these terminals. You can go see for yourself.

But if you are an agency that has trouble finding funds for essential highways, bridges or airports, the idea of improving a couple of stop-overs for folks heading south or north was not welcoming — financially or politically. The state opted to fund schools, not travel facilities. And so they sat. Neglected.

What to do?

The governor and his gang went to work: Why not do for the travel plazas what they did for the port terminal? Using the Seagirt model, they solicited proposals from several industry participants and — after careful evaluation and with help from the same team that forged the Seagirt partnership — the state settled on an experienced national operator who was joined by 10 Maryland firms, including Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore, Clarke Construction in Bethesda and Cain Contracting in Columbia.

Pending approval Wednesday by the Board of Public Works (and these things are always contentious), the state may get brand-new travel plazas with no public expenditure or debt and zero operating expenses. And like the Seagirt agreement, the state will receive a share of the gross revenue, with its share increasing as the use of the facilities grows.

These public-private partnerships seem to work. If the contract gets approved, the governor will be batting two for two. Maybe the state ought to do a few more.

Ted Venetoulis, a local publisher, is a former Baltimore County executive. His email is ted.venetoulis@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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