Jul. 27--They appear up ahead like a concrete oasis, their approach foretold by "Food-Fuel-ATM" signs, the Golden Arches glowing along the ribbon of endless roadway.
Travelers with empty stomachs and full bladders know how vital highway rest areas are to their well-being -- places to grab a burger, walk the dog, let the kids run wild for a few minutes and fill the tank with gasoline that's at least a nickel more than at the station off the next exit.
The state Department of Transportation knows how important the places it prefers to call "service plazas" are, and how much money lies in the wallets of their visitors.
State officials want to make them as comfortable, pleasant -- and lucrative -- as possible, and so are advertising for a big company to come in and take them over, and add restaurants and other stores. If you've stopped at a rest area in New Jersey or Massachusetts, you have an idea.
The state's 23 rest areas now have ExxonMobil pumps, convenience stores, restrooms and, on Interstate 95, McDonald's. While the plan doesn't necessarily mean Mobil stations or McDonald's are leaving, they clearly won't be the companies in charge.
"We now have an opportunity to improve, enhance, develop the current service plaza infrastructure to meet the needs of the motoring public," said Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the DOT.
According to its request for proposal, the state wants to "change the face" of the service plazas on I-95, Interstate 395 and Route 15, with an "innovative solution" that will "increase the economic viability" of the rest stops.
The state sees an untapped captive, if rolling, audience, with 79,000 vehicles a day on southbound I-95 alone. A study found fewer than 7.7 percent of those vehicles stop at the rest areas, and the drivers still buy 52 million gallons of fuel and $56 million worth of food and other goods on the heavily traveled roads every year.
There cert a i n l y w i l l always be a need for people to stop on their way through Connecticut. As one man at the Branford northbound stop said last week, "I'm glad it was here because I had to go bad!"
Travelers passing through the state one day last week had mixed reviews for Connecticut's rest areas, but admitted that they could use a sprucing up, as well as more healthful food.
"This one is a little shabby, I guess," said John Schiraga of Dedham, Mass., at the Branford northbound stop. "Some of the other ones I've been in seem to be in better shape, but I think the ones in Massachusetts offer a lot more."
More variety is one of the things the DOT wants. On the Massachusetts Turnpike, they even have Ben and Jerry's ice cream, Schiraga said.
Jim Henkel of Hazlet, N.J., thought Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks, offering a good cup of coffee, would improve the rest stops. They have Dunkin' in the Garden State, as well as more choices for meals, he said: Nathan's hot dogs, Sbarro, Burger King. New Jersey may bring in Subway or a similar sandwich shop, too, he said.
"McDonald's isn't a hot commodity these days for most people," Henkel said. "They're looking for healthier food."
On the other hand, New York's service areas offer too much of a good thing for Norberto Perez of Princeton, N.J. "There is a downside to having more stuff," he said. "It becomes less kid-friendly." He had stopped in at the McDonald's on northbound I-95 in Madison, one of the smallest at 6,000 square feet.
"It's controllable," he said. "You can sit down; you can see what's going on.
Nursick said it was uncertain whether the new contractor would keep McDonald's or ExxonMobil as part of the mix. "Our hope is to offer a variety of goods and services at the facilities, but at the same token we would like to have some consistency as well to what motorists can expect when they visit any of these service plazas," he said.
The state's plan is to hire a company that would come in and make the rest stops more desirable destinations. "Our goal here is to have the prime contractor invest significant capital into the design, development, reconstruction and renovation" of the plazas.
The state would get a minimum monthly guarantee plus a cut of the sales. Nursick said both the contractor and the state ought to do well. "The potential is huge," he said.
The sales at the stations vary, depending on location, with the northbound Darien stop on I-95 the best at grabbing those drivers coming out of New York. Between 2003 and 2007, it averaged $9.6 million in food and nonfuel sales and 5.5 million gallons of fuel sold.
While all of the rest areas would be renovated and improved, the state isn't expecting to add services that don't exist now. In other words, there won't be a Sbarro's on the Merritt Parkway, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
If all goes according to plan, the new owner will take over Oct. 1, 2009, when McDonald's and ExxonMobil's contracts expire. The contractors' proposals are scheduled to be opened in October.
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