A stop on road into the future; N.J. Turnpike plaza has 21st-century ways to be traveler-friendly


CRANBURY, N.J. -- Starbucks' coffee at a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike. Free access to the Internet when you pull off Exit 8A South. Flowers in the restroom. Can a Pokemon convention along this stretch of Interstate 95 be far behind?

If the New Jersey Turnpike offers a glimpse into today's motorist, then travelers want more than a place to stop and fill the tank or grab a bite to eat. If the future of America can be glimpsed on the 148-mile highway -- as two Jersey cultural historians contend -- then the future is the Molly Pitcher Travel Plaza and Tristen Kwan.

Kwan is hunched over a computer terminal at the plaza's Internet Kiosk. His bus tour to Washington, D.C., has stopped for lunch. Kwan spots the four computer terminals and takes a seat. But he's not checking his e-mail. Stocks are still being bought and sold on Wall Street. The day trader has one question in mind: "Did I make any money today?"

The answer is yes.

"Of course, I'm happy," says the 25-year-old, who has checked the performance of several Internet retailers and mutual funds during his lunch-hour stop.

"This is great," he says of the free Internet access. "I left my computer at home."

The bland, 1950s-style turnpike rest stops are going the way of the Corvair. In the year 2000, Host Marriott Services, the operator of the New Jersey Turnpike rest stops, is embarking on a $25 million renovation of the remaining 11 service areas. The prototype is the Molly Pitcher plaza, a consumer-friendly travel stopover designed according to motorists' wants and needs.

And travelers surveyed by Host Marriott say they want gourmet coffee, brand-name foods, self-flushing toilets, books on tape, upscale pizza, services for businessmen -- such as table-side telephones in restaurants and free Internet access.

"When the road is completely redone, there will some type of gourmet coffee at every location," said Tommie Sanders, a Marriott company executive who oversees the turnpike rest stop operations. "People's tastes have changed. Maxwell's [House] is a good coffee, but they want a choice."

Paul and Jan Francer travel the turnpike twice a year, on their way to their winter home in Lakeworth, Fla., and back to Needham, Mass., for the summer. Yesterday, they were headed south. Nature called as the signs for the Molly Pitcher plaza loomed ahead.

The couple were pleased at what they found inside the renovated brick building with its columns and aqua-colored canopies. A painting of Molly Pitcher adorns the entrance along with a history of the Revolutionary War heroine.

"Amazing," Jan Francer said of the free Internet access. "It's progress."

Her husband left with a good feeling about New Jersey, often the butt of jokes because of the turnpike's odorous northern industrial stretch.

"You're in a state that makes you feel welcome," he said.

Not everyone is wowed. Trucker Jack Parker, 55, of Lester, Pa., has no interest in the additional amenities: "You answer the call to Mother Nature. You get a cup of coffee. And you're back on the road."

Linda Sloginski stood before the big lighted map in the travel plaza, trying to find the quickest way from the turnpike to New Jersey Route 31.

"I'm going to end up sitting in traffic," the 29-year-old said as she cradled her 2-year-old daughter, Lil, in her arms. "But that's Thanksgiving."

This four-day holiday weekend, turnpike officials expect 6 million motorists to traverse the highway.

A decade ago, New Jersey cultural historian Angus K. Gillespie described the New Jersey Turnpike as "the most heavily traveled roadway in America."

"If you wanted to see the future of America, you could look at the New Jersey Turnpike," he said in his 1989 book, "Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike."

The Rutgers University professor says that what has changed is the turnpike authority's attitude toward its customers.

"In the past, the turnpike authority did not go out of their way to render service, perhaps because they felt they had a monopoly and they didn't have to render service," he said.

"Rendering more service in these renovated service centers yields more revenue. People are more willing to spend more in a more pleasant environment."

Dean Dzurenko, the general manager at the Pitcher plaza, said Marriott "wants to make these areas a travel destination spot. During the holidays, this may be an annual location for them."

Travelers can pick up a souvenir of New Jersey, whether it's a coffee mug, a bottle of hot sauce or a red sweat shirt that says: "Even when we're miles apart we'll always be close at heart."

There's a wall of munchies for the long-distance snacker. Beanie Baby collectors can add to their menageries. The travel plaza operators also maintain a varied stock of traveling necessities -- packets of Pepto-Bismol, Midol and Dramamine. But there are vestiges of the old stock in trade -- sewing kits, rain bonnets, bobby pins, even a 25-cent weight machine.

The Internet kiosk is among the plaza's biggest draws. The Colorado company that manufactures the Get2Net terminals says the four Molly Pitcher computers are among the busiest of the 152 units it has in airports and travel plazas across the country.

"We get an average of 20 users per terminal per day," said Tammy Shriner, a vice president of Get2Net.

Josh Young, a 16-year-old from Bristol, Conn., took his shot at the Net yesterday. His family had stopped at Molly Pitcher on its way to South Carolina.

"I go on the Internet more than I talk on the phone," said the teen-ager, who maintains three e-mail addresses.

"This is all free, so it's cool. You can check anything. You can go to SportsLine or Fox Sport. There you go," he said, as he clicked onto another sports site. "The NFL Madden. The Turkey Leg Award. Everything."

As he scrolled through a story about the Boston Celtics, the teen-ager looked up suddenly and scanned the plaza area. "Uh oh! I think my dad left."

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