By this point, we’ve all encountered the legions of business closures induced by COVID-prompted shutdowns of commerce and travel over the last year. I’ve tried to avoid too much of the cynical coverage of vacancies, instead focusing on clever strategies that various storefront retailers have deployed to generate sales from a carryout vantage point, when their internal operations remained under strict social distancing measures. But virtually every major city has taken a major hit in occupancy levels, particularly of key retail and restaurant nodes that might have been thriving as recently as February 2020. That re-emerging City Market? Decimated—brought back to early 2010 vacancy levels. That hip little food hall slated to open in the gentrifying neighborhood? The owner very likely put the kibosh on it altogether; it’s just not gonna happen under these uncertain economic conditions.
But even amidst these more predictable closures, I was surprised to encounter similar vacancies in one place that I thought might show a bit more resiliency: a toll road’s service plaza, or travel plaza. The one linked here through Google Street View is called Maryland House, part of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, which comprises the majority of the Interstate 95 corridor as it passes through Maryland. Situated at mile 82 on I-95 in Maryland, Maryland House is hardly a new initiative; the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) first constructed it in 1963, then, after several renovations, permitted the complete demolition of the old structure in 2012, to be rebuilt a larger, upgraded facility on site, as part of a long-term deal with Areas USA MDTP LLC, who both manages the service plaza and funded its redevelopment. As evidenced by MDTA’s website on its travel plazas, the upgrade is warmer and more welcoming than most rest areas, featuring vaulted ceilings with generate skylights and an expansive, open market feel. It’s also one of two travel plazas along the JFK Highway to which Areas USA financed a complete overhaul: the 1975-built Chesapeake House, just 15 miles to the east (mile 97), underwent a similar demo and redevelopment in 2014, after Maryland House’s completion.
I can’t fully understand the reasoning for large, elaborate travel plazas in such close proximity. Aside from a food court, convenience store, gas station, and tourist welcome center, each of these plazas features a gas station, bus parking, and EV charging stations. And there’s another plaza just 18 miles to the east of Chesapeake: the Delaware House (also known as the Biden Welcome Center), just outside of Newark, DE, featuring similar amenities, constructed just a few years earlier, in 2010. This unusually high concentration contrasts sharply with the placement of service plazas along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where 25 to 40 miles usually separate each one. The presence of service plazas on the Turnpike becomes more salient because actual exits in PA are few and far between, channeling vehicles along as much as 20 miles of limited-access highway without a chance to “disembark” or change direction. Meanwhile, the toll roads in Maryland and Delaware already have plenty of conventional exits to towns or attractions along the way, usually every two to four miles. So, in addition to the elevated possibility that these service plazas compete with one another, the frequency of exits means a motorist could just as easily pull over at the exits leading to Aberdeen, Havre de Grace, Belcamp, or Elkton to fill up/charge the car and grab an energy drink.
So perhaps it’s less of a surprise that Maryland House seems so deserted.
With such a small customer base, about half the restaurants couldn’t justify operations. Yes, the Currito Burrito is not operating.
According to the website, it hasn’t fully closed, but why wouldn’t it be operating during the prime lunch hour on a Wednesday? And it’s not the only one.
At least Phillips Seafood House acknowledges that it’s closed “until further notice, due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. But even the features intrinsic to the travel plaza—not the restaurant tenants operating under a lease—seem to be operating under mothballed conditions. Here’s the welcome center.
Note the completely bare merchandise shelves on the right. No doubt the operator of Maryland House—presumably Areas USA—has witnessed a plunge in demand for tourist-related services, as well the attendant goods that might have lined those shelves at one time. No point even in restocking at the moment.
In fairness, neither of these restaurants looked mothballed; they could very well re-open later that afternoon. At worst, the closure of these restaurants is indeed temporary, and they might open during busier times, such as weekends. One of the restaurants at the successful Gateway Travel Plaza in Breezewood, PA was operating only on Fridays through Sundays while pandemic conditions prevailed. But doesn’t the peak lunch hour (noon to one o’clock) seem like the optimal time to operate a food court? And a Wednesday is a very “typical” day for business-related other travel patterns. (This contrasts sharply with Mondays and Fridays, which are often part of an extended weekend, and thus are unsuitable for commuting traffic impact analyses.) The sluggish conditions of the Maryland House on a pleasant spring afternoon reveals how even places that would seem to serve as funnels for a built-in customer base aren’t meeting the basic demand levels necessary for their tenants to justify normal operating hours. And this reflects a point when the State has lifted many of the most onerous pandemic restrictions.
The reality is that Maryland House probably caters to two sizable customer bases which, amidst the lingering affects of lockdowns, continue to lag. Tourist- or leisure-related travel, though hardly at a peak on Wednesdays (probably the least leisurely day of the week), would still capture a small number of the people seeking a more relaxed pace for a lunch that a foodcourt would provide, as they venture southward for potential vacation purposes, even if it’s just gearing up for a long weekend camping or hanging out in downtown DC. And far too many people are still postponing leisure travel plans due to pandemic-related uncertainty. The other, bigger customer base—the commuter or business travel—helps exacerbate this uncertainty among vacationers, while further prompting the retreat of rest area and travel plaza purchases. Remote work remains the standard for many white-collar businesses, and those whose productivity levels remain the same or better may never return to the in-person capacity that the office claimed prior to March 2020. They don’t need to travel along I-95 for work either.
As a result, lunch-oriented restaurants like Currito and Phillips can’t justify even keeping two or three staffers behind a counter on these days of uncharacteristically thin patronage. Perhaps the property manager, Areas USA I’d presume, has offered them reduced rate leases if they keep operating. But these conditions compounded over time are not good for the business enterprise that financed and constructed these swanky new rest areas. Keeping in mind this capitalistic enterprise sits squarely on federal right-of-way, I’d be very surprised if Areas USA has finished paying off the mid-2010s construction loan that helped build Maryland House (or Chesapeake House). Throughout the first two decades of the 21st century, state governments have been playing checkers with their rest areas, strategically closing the least visited ones, consolidating energy in the more smartly located spots where demand is highest: often as a welcome center near a state line, as long as this welcome center isn’t too close to a major urbanized area, where gas, food, and other core services are already abundant. Northeast Maryland is reasonably rural, but Baltimore and Wilmington aren’t far away, and the distances between Maryland House, Chesapeake House, and Delaware House is modest—less than 20 miles for each. It’s rare to find fully state-supported rest areas in such close proximity.
Why should a private enterprise continue to supply so many travel plazas when the demand is low low? Keeping these conditions in mind, it’s hard to imagine that a profit-motivated entity like Areas USA can continue the pandemic paradigm much longer. The company manages or owns 225 of these places. And while I don’t want to play the cynic, the invisible hand may ultimately force the plush entrance doors to get padlocked shut to Maryland House. And the others nearby, too.