In 1995, when AAI Corp. was branching into the subway car overhaul business, the Maryland Mass Transit Administration threw it a bone.
It was one of AAI's first transit contracts and it was small - worth less than $5 million - to repair 28 cars on the MARC II. But it gave the Hunt Valley-based company, known mostly for manufacturing defense drones, a toehold in the subway business.
Yesterday, the state boosted AAI again, granting the 1,200-employee company a $80.6 million contract to overhaul all 100 cars in the Baltimore Metro subway fleet.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced the contract after the Board of Public Works approved the selection. The overhaul will create about 75 manufacturing and engineering jobs over the next three years and bring the state closer to its goal of doubling transit ridership by 2020, the governor said.
About 50,000 commuters ride the subway daily, said Frank Fulton, spokesman for the MTA. But the system's fleet is aging and lacks the technical amenities of other subway systems, such as electronic signs and audio warnings for stops.
"It's getting older, and it's in need of an upgrade, just from normal wear and tear," Fulton said.
Passengers can look forward to the electronic signage and audio warnings, as well as new floors and more comfortable seats. The upgrades will cost $706,000 per car, and take about three years.
The MTA contract is the largest the company has landed for transit systems, eclipsing the $71 million it received last year for a makeover of the New Jersey Transit Authority's system.
In the five years since its work for the Maryland Rail Commuter Service, known as MARC, AAI has overhauled some of the people movers at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and San Francisco's MUNI Transit System.
To win the Baltimore subway contract, it beat out Alstom, a French company based in Hawthorne, N.Y., and known internationally for its high-speed trains.
"We've come a long way for sure in the last four years," said Jack Bell, senior vice president of AAI's transportation division.
Fulton said AAI was the lowest bidder for the work, but the MTA also based its decision on the company's performance on the MARC job. AAI has also worked on the light rail system and on the emergency warning system at the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority.
AAI is best known for manufacturing pilotless warplanes. It moved into the transit overhaul business in the early 1990s in hopes of applying its experience upgrading manned air vehicles to aging transit systems.