State seeks private partner for two I-95 travel plazas

This time around, the Maryland Transportation Authority won't dictate to prospective bidders how many hand dryers to install in the bathrooms at the state's two travel plazas on Interstate 95.

Almost nine months after the agency canceled its first effort to form a public-private partnership to operate replacements for the aging Maryland House and Chesapeake House, it is trying again with a bid solicitation that isn't quite as persnickety about every last detail.

The authority's first effort was aborted in November 2010 after the offering received a tepid reaction from potential partners. Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley said the original request for proposals exceeded 700 pages and was "extremely prescriptive." The seven addendums to that document only added to the confusion, she said.

Now, Swaim-Staley said, the state is back on the market with a stripped-down offer with which it hopes to attract a partner to operate the busy rest stops along the toll-road segment of I-95 in Northeast Maryland.

No longer will the state seek to dictate the number of gas pumps or dryers in the restrooms. Unlike the old solicitation, which called for full replacement of the existing plazas, the new one doesn't even specify whether the plazas' central structures must be entirely new buildings or a rehabilitation of the existing ones, Swaim-Staley said.

The secretary said the authority had learned its lesson from the failure of its first effort to attract a partner, which would rebuild or renovate the plazas, then operate them and share the revenue from the sale of food, fuel and merchandise with the state.

"You need to give the private sector the leeway to bring their own ideas," she said.

The new bid solicitation was issued June 27 and bids are due Sept. 23 — though Swaim-Staley said the state was considering an extension after some bidders requested more time. She said the authority hoped to bring a completed deal to the Board of Public Works for approval by early next year.

The neo-Georgian brick Maryland House near Aberdeen has been a fixture on I-95 since the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway opened in 1963. The more nondescript Chesapeake House opened in Cecil County in 1975.

The authority has been talking about replacing the current facilities, which it has pronounced obsolete and undersized, since 2006. But it has taken five years to get what the agency hopes will be a viable offer onto the street.

Swaim-Staley said that after the first offering sank under its own weight, the authority enlisted the help of Public Financial Management, the consultant that helped it craft the state's highly regarded public-private partnership with Ports America for the construction of a 50-foot-deep berth and the long-term cargo-handling operations at the Seagirt Marine Terminal.

For its new solicitation, the state is learning from deals put together by Delaware and Connecticut, Swaim-Staley said.

"Public-private partnerships are new for most states and new for us," she said.

Swaim-Staley cautioned that there were no guarantees the authority would consummate a marriage this time either.

"If we don't get a deal we think is good for the state, we won't do it," she said.