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Published: Monday, 1/3/2005

Turnpike eyes better service for truckers

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A large truck stop and service plaza complex could be built in Fulton County on the Ohio Turnpike to replace two pairs of smaller plazas and entice more truckers to use the highway that stretches across northern Ohio.

Gary Suhadolnik, the turnpike's executive director, said the truck-stop proposal is in the preliminary stages, and several sites are being considered. But a 2005 budget the turnpike commission approved Dec. 20 includes $1.25 million for site development in Fulton County about a mile west of the State Rt. 109 interchange near Delta.

The service plazas near West Unity, Ohio, and Swanton are the smallest on the turnpike and among the oldest. "We need to rebuild the facilities, and we would like to have larger facilities," Mr. Suhadolnik said. "The traffic volumes are lower on the west end."

Something "more truck-oriented" would dove-tail with an ongoing turnpike and ODOT campaign to persuade truckers to use the turnpike instead of nearby two-lane secondary routes. That campaign includes fare reductions and a speed-limit hike that allowed all traffic, not just passenger vehicles and commercial buses, to go 65 mph.

"We want to get trucks to use the [toll] road and keep them on the road," Mr. Suhadolnik said. Turnpike officials have been in contact with potential vendors "to see what makes sense to them," he said.

A similar truck-stop plan is in the works for replacing the turnpike's easternmost pair of service plazas, about four miles west of the Pennsylvania border. But that would involve rebuilding at an existing plaza location, and no facilities would be eliminated.

Lauren Dehrmann, a turnpike spokesman, said the turnpike sent letters out to potential truck-stop operators. Staff now are reviewing the responses.

Spokesmen for TravelCenters of America and Flying J, two major truck-stop chains, confirmed last week that the turnpike had contacted those companies, but said they had no information about their potential involvement because company officials were on holiday vacations. Representatives from Pilot Travel Centers and Petro Stopping Centers did not return messages seeking comment.

Turnpike truck stops in Fulton County potentially could compete for business with a cluster of large travel centers at the I-280 interchange in Lake Township that includes TravelCenters, Flying J, Pilot, and Petro outlets.

Tim McNally, a trucker from Youngstown who drives to Chicago several times a week, said turnpike truck stops would appeal to him if they had ample parking, competitively priced fuel, and full-service restaurants.

"They don't have enough [parking] now in the rest areas," Mr. McNally said while fueling his rig at the Lake Township TravelCenter of America last week. "And I want a sit-down restaurant, not a lot of fast food. I want to sit down and eat a meal, a real good meal."

Eugene Gingrich, a cross-country driver from Shartlesville, Pa., said he prefers to take shower breaks at recently remodeled Ohio Turnpike service plazas between Fremont and Youngstown, because the new facilities offer better privacy and a secured area for clothing and personal effects.

Starting in 1997, the turnpike rebuilt the four busiest pairs of its service plazas, and reconstruction of a fifth pair, the Blue Heron and Wyandot plazas in Ottawa County, is under way. The rebuilt plazas have larger truck parking areas and multiple restaurant brands, though except for one "sit-down," limited-menu restaurant in each center, service is take-away with food-court seating available. And the Ottawa County plazas' food service will be food-court only.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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