Truck stop operators oppose attempt to keep Md. travel stores open They target provision by Sarbanes in Senate bill


WASHINGTON -- Travelers zipping through Maryland on Interstate 95 have become accustomed to the ease with which they can fill up on kosher hot dogs, gourmet coffee, fuel and information about the state's tourism spots at a pair of state-owned travel plazas north of Baltimore.

But a contract between Maryland and the federal government requires that the plazas, run by Host Marriott Services, close their stores by November 2008 if the state is to continue receiving federal highway money each year to help maintain that portion of the interstate.

This spring, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes slipped a little-noticed provision into the $218 billion Senate transportation bill.

His provision would allow the state to keep the shops at Maryland House, a few miles south of the Aberdeen exit in Harford County, and Chesapeake House, between North East and Port Deposit in Cecil County.

"These facilities have worked out pretty well," the Maryland Democrat said. "A change would diminish the service we're giving to the traveling public."

Operators of truck stops off the interstate, however, lament that the two travel plazas, conveniently placed in the medians between northbound and southbound lanes, strangle opportunity for small-business owners, contrary to the intentions of the legislation that created the interstate highway system.

The original law says no commercial outlets should operate on the interstates themselves. But it made exceptions for existing plazas in Delaware, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

When the Kennedy Highway -- I-95 in Maryland from Delaware to the Baltimore line -- became eligible for federal highway money in the Federal Highway Administration allowed the two travel stops to operate throughout the life of their contracts with Host Marriott Services. But, aside from dispensing tourism advice, the commercial centers are supposed to close in 10 years.

"They provide an unfair competitive playing field," said Roger Cole, president of Virginia-based Highway Service Ventures and owner of a rest area in Elkton. The state-owned plaza, Cole said, puts a Wendy's restaurant at his Maryland site out of financial reach. He built one in Virginia instead.

A study by the University of Maryland for the National Association of Truck Stop Operators compared similar stretches I-95 in Maryland and Virginia and found Maryland less hospitable to service-related businesses -- such as restaurants, gas stations, hotels and truck service shops near the highway.

The 40-mile stretch of the highway in Virginia, from near Fredericksburg to near Richmond, carries about 89,200 vehicles a day. Nearly 130 businesses employing 3,300 people have sprouted up within a quarter-mile of the seven exits.

By contrast, Maryland's 35-mile section of I-95 north of Baltimore near the state-owned travel plazas sustains 187,500 vehicles a day and has nine exits. But the researchers counted 70 businesses with 1,960 employees there. The two state-owned plazas employ about 630 people.

Nationally, the study found 68 percent less business at such interchange stores when a travel center is nearby.

Despite lobbying of members of Congress by the truck stop operators association, the provision is so modest it is unlikely to encounter resistance from House and Senate negotiators who are seeking to reconcile differences in their transportation bills.

"It's a small thing," said Eric Webster, legislative director for Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, the Eastern Shore Republican who is a member of the House Transportation Committee. "I don't think it's going to be a major issue."

Pub Date: 5/15/98

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