The weary highway traveler in Ohio can pull off at a rest stop and find such delicacies as locally produced cheeses, smoked meats and chocolates. In Maryland, that same traveler could feast on Eastern Shore classics such as crab cakes at Phillips Seafood while using the free Wi-fi to check e-mail. In Pennsylvania, the offerings include a seasonal farmers market and a charging station for electric vehicles.
These are not your grandfather's rest stops.
In fact, they're not rest stops at all, not in the sense of a traditional interstate highway rest stop, where one can find a restroom and vending machines and not much else.
These are the expansive travel plazas or service plazas found only alongside toll roads, and states that have them are expanding to accommodate much higher vehicle counts than were on the roads when most first opened decades ago. They are modernizing to provide the sort of amenities that today's motorist has come to expect, such as Wi-Fi.
The upgrades are usually done in public-private partnerships with vendors who lease the plazas.
States are trying to outdo one another with the level of services they provide, creating yet another front in the never-ending battle of economic competition between them.
"I would say it's a healthy competition," says Bruce Gartner, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which owns two service plazas on Interstate 95. "We learn and improve upon each other's concepts."
The plazas are set up in the median of the highway or alongside it, and they're often more evocative of a mall than a rest stop. That's not by accident.
"We're set up very much like a mall," says Andrew Herberger, service plaza operations manager for the Ohio Turnpike, which owns seven sets of service plazas along the 241-mile highway. "Our service plazas are basically mini-malls."
Last year, Ohio began renovating its service plazas at a cost of about $1.5 million per set. Two of the service plazas, at Middle Ridge and Vermilion Valley, offer Ohio-grown, fresh farm products — cheeses, meats, chocolates, grape juice and fruit.
To many Americans, that probably seems like pretty highbrow fare for a highway rest stop. In most of the nation, it is.
ADVANTAGES OF TOLL ROADS
The federal government has prohibited the commercialization of the right-of-way, including rest stops and recreation areas, along the Interstate System since 1956, according to the Federal Highway Administration. A year later, in 1957, 2,102 miles of toll roads in 15 states were added and were exempted from those restrictions. In 1982, the commercial restriction was modified to allow vending machines in rest and recreation areas located on the interstates' right-of-way.
Today, the 46,730-mile Interstate System includes about 2,900 miles of turnpikes, according to the highway administration.
That situation gives states with service plazas a competitive advantage against those without them, says Emily Goff, a policy analyst in transportation at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.
"A state (that has interstate service plazas) actually brings in revenue from fuel sales and other taxes, whereas a state like Virginia doesn't make any money and has … shut down rest areas to save money. That means motorists have fewer places to stop."
Virginia was one of several states that closed some of its rest stops in a cost-cutting move in 2009. The state reopened the facilities in 2010.
Goff says the anti-commercialization law originated to protect existing businesses along interstate routes from new establishments that might be built closer to the road, giving them a competitive edge. "This federal law … is definitely outdated," she says. "Now, you have (national) chains (at interstate plazas) that are being protected." Goff says that when Congress passes a federal highway reauthorization bill, it should allow states to make exemptions to the prohibition or end it altogether.
It's not that simple, says Lisa Mullings, president and CEO of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, an Alexandria, Va.-based group of about 1,300 travel centers in the USA and Canada that has resisted repeated efforts in Congress to repeal the prohibition. The group doesn't want other states to be able to add service plazas in the interstate median.
She says the service plazas "are virtually a monopoly," because they are in the interstate median, and pull business and jobs away from stores and restaurants just off the highway. "A lot of service plazas, you think there are multiple choices. But in fact, it operates as a franchise. I'm not aware of any rest areas that are operated by some Mom and Pop. It's usually a large corporation that is not even located within the state."
Mullings says studies at the University of Maryland and Virginia Tech Transportation Institute have shown that highways with service plazas have about one-third fewer businesses than highways without them.
KEEPING UP WITH VEHICLE VOLUME
Maryland's two service plazas, Maryland House in Harford County and Chesapeake House in Cecil County, were built in the 1960s. They are undergoing a $56 million face-lift.
"They were functionally obsolete," Gartner says. "They were made for a dining experience back in the '60s, when you only had about 6 million vehicles on that road. Today, with all the food courts and very open, spacious, high-ceilinged dining options, and 30 million vehicles on the road, these facilities were just outdated."
Since September 2012, Maryland's service plazas have been operated in a public-private partnership by Areas USA, a Miami-based company that provides food, beverage and retail services at 10 airports and at service plazas on the Florida Turnpike.
Maryland House reopened in January with $30 million in improvements, having expanded from 33,000 to 42,000 square feet. It features such local-flavored dining choices as Phillips Seafood and Jerry's Subs & Pizza, along with brands such as Wendy's, Dunkin' Donuts and Nathan's Famous.
Pennsylvania is renovating all 17 service plazas along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, says Carl DeFebo, a turnpike spokesman. "We had these service plazas that were built in 1937, 1938, 1939," he says. "They were constructed to accommodate a certain level of vehicle volume. The planners didn't anticipate the level of usage on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which was much higher than they expected."
In addition to a variety of food and fuel options, all turnpike service plazas offer free Wi-Fi. Two of them have electric-vehicle charging stations, with plans to add more. Three other plazas have seasonal farmers markets, where visitors can buy fruits, vegetables and other products.
Even with all the fancy amenities, though, service plazas on toll roads do share one trait with their lower-tiered counterparts on the free interstates.
"The No. 1 reason people stop is to use the restroom," Herberger says. "This gets down to the basics. So we're very focused on providing clean facilities."