LIANE HANSEN, host:
It's a long drive from Maine to Delaware on I-95. Luckily, there are rest stops on the way. They range from small buildings with vending machines, maps and restrooms, to sprawling plazas with gas stations, restaurants and other amenities. The Delaware Travel Plaza is our destination.
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HANSEN: This stretch of I-95 through Delaware and Maryland opened in November of 1963. President John F. Kennedy did the ribbon cutting before a crowd of thousands.
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President JOHN F. KENNEDY: It symbolizes, I believe, this highway, first of all, a partnership between the federal government and the state, which is essential to the progress of all of our people.
HANSEN: Eight days later on a trip to Dallas, Texas, JFK was assassinated. And this part of I-95 then became known as the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway.
When the Delaware Travel Plaza opened in 1964 on I-95 just outside Newark, Delaware, there was a gas station and a round building that housed the restrooms and a restaurant. The building was very gloomy inside, and over the years, the site and the services declined precipitously.
It closed after Labor Day last year. A newly renovated Delaware House opened for business this June. We visited the 42,000-square-foot roadside stopover earlier this month.
Man, this place looks like an art museum - all glass. It's got a rounded roof. It's got two patios on either side, a sign that says: welcome to Delaware.
Inside, there are eight places to eat and four shops - enough variety to satisfy a troop of Boy Scouts returning from a 100th anniversary jamboree in Washington.
Mr. CSABA ROSZIK (Troop 114, Boy Scouts): I'm Csaba Roszik from troop 114 in Massachusetts.
HANSEN: So, what do you think of this rest stop?
Mr. ROSZIK: We stopped in New York, I think, coming here. It was awful. It was really dark. And this one's really, like, light. And you just walk in, you're like, it just takes your breath away.
HANSEN: Fred Fox is a general manager for HMS Host, the commercial operator of this facility, which is officially called the Delaware Welcome Center Travel Plaza. He's proud of its function, not just its form.
Mr. FRED FOX (HMS Host): We provide restrooms 24 hours a day -clean restrooms, I might add. We provide a place to sit and, you know, just relax. We have pet exercise areas, where you can take your dog and, you know, do what it needs to do, or I guess cats probably, too. But I don't see too many cats traveling, but dogs for sure.
HANSEN: You ever thought of putting a couple of massage chairs in?
No massage chairs but there is a Z Market, touted as an upscale convenience store that sells travel essentials and gourmet pre-packaged meals.
Mr. FOX: This facility is a game changer for us and for the industry.
HANSEN: The Delaware Travel Plaza is somewhat unique among roadside rest stops. A federal law passed in the 1960s prohibits private businesses from running state-owned rest areas, specifically to protect small businesses along interstates.
But the Delaware Travel Plaza, as well as two in Maryland, were grandfathered in. And the Delaware Plaza is making money for the state. Delaware gets a percentage of the sales of food and gasoline, but no taxes.
Lisa Mullings is the president and CEO of NATSO, a trade association that represents the travel plaza and truck stop industry - you know, the kind where you actually have to exit the highway to fill up the tank. She contends that there is a tax - only a hidden one.
Ms. LISA MULLINGS (President, CEO, NATSO): Someone in my office called and asked, what is the price of a hamburger at the Delaware center? Then she called the nearest Burger King that was independently owned off of the interstate, which is seven miles away, and it was almost a dollar difference.
HANSEN: It's true that prices are higher at the Delaware Travel Plaza. Management says items there sell for about 10 percent more than they do at similar places off the interstate - a boon for the state. Mullings and the businesses she represents are worried that the success of the Delaware Travel Plaza might embolden other states to lobby to repeal the law that protects those local merchants at interstate exits.
Ms. MULLINGS: There are 50 percent fewer businesses at the interstate exits if there's a commercialized rest area.
HANSEN: But travelers, like Rohan Cumberbatch-Smith, who is driving home to Norfolk, Virginia with his wife Baseema, say they are willing to pay for the convenience.
Mr. ROHAN CUMBERBATCH-SMITH: It's a beautiful building. It's a little bit pricey, though, the items in here. I guess once you're on the road, you have no choice. But it's beautiful.
HANSEN: For all its bells and whistles, the sprawling Delaware House can make one nostalgic for the old rest-stop kitsch. There are still buckets of Dolly's Salt Water Taffy and jars of Old Bay seasoning for sale. But I told Fred Fox of HMS Host that something was missing.
I have to admit I started a hobby, stopping at rest stops during my travels. Invariably there's a machine where you put in a penny and then like 50 cents and you twirl the gears and you get a squished penny with, you know, a little souvenir of the state that you're in. Is there a squished penny machine here?
Mr. FOX: No, there's not.
HANSEN: No? Why not?
Mr. FOX: We made a conscious decision when we reopened the facility that we were going to focus on transactions that had an actual person involved, a customer service...
HANSEN: OK. No squished pennies, so I settle for a box of Melomints and we get back on Interstate 95 and make the two-hour drive south back to Washington, D.C.
Our series I-95: The Road Most Traveled continues on the next WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY with a report on the migrant workers who travel the road. And if you're planning a trip on I-95, we've got music, mini-road trips and more on our site, NPR.org./I95.
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