For decades, residents in the Midway neighborhood in East Baltimore have dealt with fumes, noise and the less-than-pleasing aesthetics of a major bus depot in their backyards.
On Tuesday, federal, state and local officials gathered in the neighborhood in the rain to promote a $140 million investment to replace the Maryland Transit Administration's aged Kirk Avenue facility — aiming to revitalize the neighborhood in the process.
"We're going to be a better neighbor to the community we're in," said Robert Smith, administrator of the MTA, which stores and maintains about 175 buses at the site. "We've been here for decades. It's time."
The neighborhood is noisier than ever, but for good reason, neighbors say. Work is underway on the first, $65 million phase of the project: turning the adjacent, empty Reese Press lot into a new maintenance facility for the depot.
The first phase is expected to be completed in the summer of 2015.
The second, $75 million phase will rebuild the existing MTA facility across Kirk Avenue, which was built in 1947 and today serves 16 bus routes, most of them in Northeast Baltimore.
The second phase is expected to be completed in 2017.
Combined, the new facilities will feature 300,000 square feet of space for administrative offices, bus fueling and washing bays, and on-site parking for the 350 MTA operators and staff who will work there. The MTA will be able store about 175 buses indoors, including new hybrid vehicles that are difficult to store in older facilities because of their height.
A large outdoor garden will be open to neighborhood residents.
Officials said the project will allow the MTA to ramp up its efforts to switch to hybrid buses, keep its fleet safer, help clean up the air in Baltimore and improve operations along many routes in Northeast.
The work will create hundreds of jobs, officials said, with many set aside for individuals from poorer communities.
Neighbors said they are excited about the changes.
"It was just kind of like dead space," said Linda Johnson, a resident since 1971 and president of the Greater Greenmount Community Association, of the lot where the Reese Press building used to stand. "Now with this new project, it brings some new life."
"Change is a good thing," said Elaine Day, another association member who has lived in the neighborhood since 1977. "That building sitting there was blight for 20, 30 years."
Funding includes a $40 million federal grant to the state under the Federal Transit Administration's State of Good Repair program in 2012, which allowed the first phase of the project to begin. It also includes $75 million designated for the second phase under the state's Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013.
Tuesday's groundbreaking brought out a large number of officials, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other state and local legislators; Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr.; Rep. Elijah Cummings; Federal Transit Administrator Peter M. Rogoff; and U.S. Deputy Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari.
Cummings, who was credited as a key champion of the project, said he toured the neighborhood with residents years ago and heard about high cancer rates in homes surrounding the bus facility, complaints about blight, and a general sense that noise and air pollution was diminishing quality of life in the neighborhood.
He and other officials, including Rawlings-Blake, said the project will allow residents to enjoy their neighborhood again.
Porcari, who previously served as Maryland's transportation secretary, said the project was all about "keeping faith with our community" and improving transit throughout the city.
"By our standards, this is a pretty significant federal grant, and it's for the right reasons," he said. "This is transportation at its best."