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    N.Y. Travel Plazas Get Low Marks

    State audit finds high prices, dirty bathrooms at Interstate sites.

    ALBANY, N.Y. -- Food prices are high and restrooms are often dirty at New York State Thruway travel plazas, according to an audit report released in June 26 by state comptroller Alan Hevesi.

    Ineffective monitoring and oversight of concessionaire's contracts with the Thruway Authority are to blame, the audit said.

    "Thruway travel plazas should be operated for the comfort of travelers and the financial benefit of all New Yorkers," Hevesi said in a written statement. "Based on our auditors' findings, the Authority needs to provide better oversight so it can improve services for travelers and potentially increase revenues from the travel plazas."

    In addition to providing food service, contractors HMS Host and McDonald's are responsible for the cleanliness of the plazas, including restrooms. Plaza gas stations operate under separate contracts.

    The Thruway Authority must approve menu items and prices, and the prices charged must be comparable to those on other toll roads, or at similar restaurants in the region of that travel plaza.

    The comptroller's auditors found that many unapproved menu items were available and that many food items were offered at prices higher than the approved amount. In some cases prices were 30 percent higher than prices in the area, the report said.

    Auditors found that the contract-approved prices for drinks at McDonald's on the Thruway were 19 to 39 percent higher -- $1.69 for a large drink compared with $1.42 off-Thruway, $1.39 for a small drink compared with $1.00 off-Thruway. A large Whopper combo at Burger King was $5.95 at travel plazas and $4.33 off-Thruway, while a regular kids' hamburger meal was $2.99 at travel plazas and $2.33 off-Thruway.

    "If the Thruway Authority made sure that the prices were more in line with those at similar local restaurants, more travelers would purchase more food at the plazas, and the end result would be higher revenues for the authority and its concessionaires," Hevesi said.

    "That is exactly what happened when the authority subsidized lower fuel prices at plaza gas stations several years ago. Sales increased dramatically, so the rents paid by Sunoco and ExxonMobil -- which are based on gallons of fuel delivered to each station - increased as well," his statement said.

    Additional findings cited in the report are:

    * Only 3 percent of all plaza restroom inspections by the Authority were conducted during nighttime hours and bathrooms were sometimes dirty. The auditors also found that in some cases informal arrangements had been made to allow fewer cleaning personnel than were required under contract;
    * The Thruway Authority received only summary sales data from plaza food concessionaires. This made it difficult to track consumer preferences and the success of different restaurants. "This lack of information could result in lower rent income from the plazas," the report said;
    * Thruway Authority staff didn't perform the required number of inspections and inspection practices did not focus on inflated food prices or dirty restrooms;
    * The Thruway Authority could enhance customer service by expanding services for truckers, offering motel and hotel reservation services and opening more convenience stores at travel plazas.

    In its written response to the audit, the Thruway Authority agreed that food prices should be more carefully monitored, and that informal arrangements to allow fewer restroom cleaners had been changed.

    But the authority also said that the report did not reflect " the overall high quality customer service delivered by the plaza's on a daily basis.

    "Further, while we are always striving to improve our monitoring capability, we believe it is inaccurate to suggest that current efforts are ineffective," the Thruway Authority response said.

    "The Thruway Authority is also in active discussions with food vendors to ensure that food prices are competitive with off-Thruway vendors. Those discussions also include making more food choices available for extended hours," authority spokesman Terry O'Brien said.

    The authority employs nine inspectors to monitor the 27 travel plazas. Sixteen Thruway travel plazas are operated under contract with HMS Host and 11 under contract with McDonald's. HMS Host directly manages and operates its restaurant and retail operations, while McDonald's subcontracts with other restaurants and retail operators.

    ABOVE: The DeWitt Travel Plaza in Syracuse, N.Y.

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