Iowa transit programs deal with aging buses

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Owners of old, high-mileage vehicles know all too well the headaches associated with keeping them running in cold weather.

Tom Brase has 16 to deal with this winter.

"We try to keep them all running the best we can, but we also have to keep vehicles out there on the road, so it gets to be a challenge," said Brase, director of SEATS paratransit service, which last year served nearly 1,200 seniors, people with disabilities and others in Johnson County.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports (http://icp-c.com/1cbySrq ) two-thirds of SEATS' 24 buses have exceeded what the government considers to be the useful lifespan of a transit vehicle, and on average, the program's buses are the oldest they've been in SEATS' nearly 40-year history. Likewise, almost two-thirds of Iowa City's transit fleet and half of Coralville's buses remain on the road after surpassing useful life benchmarks.

It's an issue public transit providers are grappling with across Iowa, with 56 percent of the state's buses exceeding the Federal Transit Administration's useful life standards, be it in age or mileage.

At a time when city buses are being outfitted with high-tech GPS systems and riders are able to check bus locations in real time on their phones, the fleets themselves are, on average, anything but modern. And with federal transit funding nose-diving in recent years, Iowa's aging buses have become a pressing issue, transit leaders say.

"It's an issue that continues to grow each year because funding has decreased so much that our fleets are just getting older and older," said Mark Little, president of the Iowa Public Transit Association and managing director of the Waterloo Metropolitan Transit Authority. Little said Iowa ranks 47th in the U.S. in terms of fleet age, "and it's causing problems not only with an aging fleet, but maintaining such older equipment."

Of the 1,610 transit vehicles in operation by cities or regional entities statewide, 910 are on the road beyond their recommended lifespans. With the price tag for a new heavy-duty city bus exceeding $400,000, it would cost more than $120 million to replace all of the state's retirement-age vehicles, according to the IPTA.

The transit association is asking state lawmakers to set aside $5 million this year to help rejuvenate fleets with new vehicles and make up for the millions in federal earmarks that have gone by the wayside in recent years.

"We're just so far behind I'm not sure we'll ever catch up," Little said. "We're getting further and further behind."

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SEATS' two dozen buses, on average, are 6.7 years old and have 152,000 miles on the odometer. The federal replacement threshold for the type of light-duty vehicles used by SEATS is four years or 120,000 miles. Just four years ago, SEATS buses, on average were 4.4 years old and had 103,400 miles.

For Brase and his SEATS staff during this particularity frigid winter, the older fleet has meant contending with engines that are harder to turn over, fuel gelling up, colder buses because of poor seals, and mechanical breakdowns.

"The older they get, the more wear and tear they have, the more maintenance costs," Brase said. "A vehicle that's about four years old or less costs about $2,500 a year to maintain, where the five years and older vehicles cost over $10,000 a year to maintain."

The city of Iowa City, which has a contract with SEATS and maintains a dozen of the paratransit vehicles, is in the process of replacing four of the light-duty SEATS vehicles through a statewide purchasing contract, as well as one of its heavy-duty city buses through a grant. But even with the new vehicles, which are expected to be acquired this year, Johnson County's paratransit and city bus fleets will by-and-large remain past their prime.

In addition to the dozen paratransit vehicles, Iowa City owns 29 heavy-duty buses, according to a report the Iowa DOT's Office of Public Transit. Fifteen of the those city buses have exceeded useful life standards, which for transit vehicles of 35 feet or more, is 12 years and 350,000 miles.

"When you get that age past 12 years, whether it's 15, 18, 20, which some people are running, your maintenance issues start to come up exponentially, as well," said Chris O'Brien, Iowa City's director of transportation services. "As those inefficiencies start to take place with your engines and other operating systems, your fuel costs are going to go up, as well. So all of that hits our operating budget, hits the bottom line."

For the city of Coralville, five of its 10 city buses and two of its three paratransit vehicles have exceeded the useful life standards. The University of Iowa's 41-vehicle Cambus fleet, meanwhile, has 12 vehicles considered to be beyond their useful life — making it one of the few fleets in the state where newer buses outnumber older.

"It's a very big concern of most transit agencies in the state," said Vicky Robrock, Coralville's transit director and urban vice president for the IPTA board. "It drastically affects our operating and maintenance expenses. And the downtime of the vehicles — often people think about the fact that it costs more to repair them, but that doesn't necessarily talk about the impact of when you're short a vehicle or two that are in being repaired."

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Until 2011, Iowa typically had received between $5 million and $10 million annually for its bus replacement needs via federal earmarks, Little said.

But that funding largely disappeared with a congressional earmarks ban three years ago, and Little said the state's transit systems have been losing ground since then. Last year, for instance, the state's Public Transportation Department received about $1 million in federal money, and the state allocated $3 million from its Iowa Capital Access Program for transit replacement.

Transit leaders are asking lawmakers to allocate additional $5 million this year, in addition to the $3 million in ICAP money, for replacement purchases, but Little isn't optimistic.

Replacements costs are more often than not out of reach at the local level, Little said. A 40-foot heavy-duty bus runs almost $430,000, while a light duty bus, like the kind used by SEATS, can cost between $80,000 and $90,000.

"Some of the agencies will use their local funds to purchase buses, but most of them are not in that position because we're spending so much money on operating costs," Little said.

Instead, cities are trying to stretch out the lives of their old buses. For Iowa City's transit mechanics, that means more frequent oil changes and staying ahead of maintenance schedules — ensuring heating and cooling systems are up and running well ahead of the necessary season, for instance.

"Obviously the better you maintain them early in their lives, the longer they're going to last you later on," said O'Brien, whose bus fleet includes 11 near 500,000 miles, and a dozen that are older than 15 years. "We know going in making a purchase that it's a long-term investment to us."

For passengers, older buses can result in rocky suspensions or draftier rides. And although newer buses have entryways and a ramp at ground level, older models often have steps and a mechanical lift.

For now, though, public transit providers say they're doing all they can to keep their aging buses roadworthy.

"What you do to stay out in front of that is just knowing ahead of time you're probably looking at 15 to 18 years before you're going to see some funding for a replacement," O'Brien said. "You have to make sure your preventative maintenance is on task, and I think our maintenance guys do an excellent job."

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Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, http://www.press-citizen.com/

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