Ray LaHood was 20 minutes late for his date Monday afternoon with the neighbors who live around the crumbling Kirk Avenue bus maintenance yard in East Baltimore.
But the U.S. transportation secretary came with a gift that brought smiles and cheers: a $40 million grant to help replace the aging structure with a two-building complex using the latest "green" technology.
"It's good to see you, but more important, thanks for bringing the check," said Rep. Elijah Cummings as he greeted LaHood.
The Maryland Transit Administration will use the federal money plus $13 million in state funds to replace the yard with buildings on either side of Kirk Avenue that will be more efficient and less harmful to a community that lived for years with the round-the-clock sound and smell of idling diesel buses.
Built in 1947, the depot has never been extensively renovated. It is a major hub for the transit administration, a workplace for 351 employees, and a storage and maintenance site for 175 buses that serve 16 routes and carry more than a million people a week.
"I've lived just seven steps from the buses every day for 50 years," said Freida Morton, a community leader who has lived on Bartlett Street for a half-century. "I'm not an expert, but not even Superman could breathe that air and live like that."
In 2004, the Johns Hopkins Center for Urban Environmental Health took readings in and around Morton's home and found that noise levels at the bus depot fence line exceeded the limit set by Baltimore's health ordinance. Air samples found that the average two-week exposure to diesel exhaust and other combustion was slightly above the federal safety threshold for a full year's exposure.
The new 100,000-square-foot maintenance yard, on the site of the Reese Press building, will be completely enclosed. On-site parking will be provided to alleviate congestion in the neighborhood, another friction point.
The state expects to put the project out to bid in December, award the contract in late spring and have it open in the fall of 2014. State officials say the work is expected to generate 700 construction jobs.
The project's second phase includes converting the present outdoor bus yard into inside bus storage and administrative offices.
The Maryland grant was the second-largest among $787 million awarded Monday for assistance for modernization protects by the Transportation Department. New Jersey Transit received a $76 million grant.
"It's very, very deserving," LaHood said of the depot replacement. "This project puts friends and neighbors to work."
But the demand for money to upgrade the nation's aging infrastructure far outstrips the government's ability to pay, he said. Just 255 projects were selected from 836 applications asking for $4 billion; in 2010 and 2011 combined, the Transportation Department awarded $1.8 billion, LaHood said.
Cummings, who said he rode the No. 36 bus to City College 45 years ago, called the award "a big one" and thanked the neighbors for their patience and persistence.
The state also is getting an additional $5 million in grants, including $1.65 million to make safety and accessibility improvements to the Cherry Hill Transit Hub in South Baltimore, which connects bus and light rail service. Improvements include an expanded bus waiting area, a lot for riders being dropped off at the station, and a well-lighted and upgraded station plaza.