TARGET 8: Repair records indicate certain city buses cost more to maintain

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COLUMBIA — Newer buses purchased in the late 2000s by the City of Columbia are costing much more in maintenance costs than their older counterparts from the early 2000s.

City of Columbia Multimodal manager Drew Brooks said this leads to a decrease in available buses.

“What happens is we have so many that are breaking down, that we don’t have enough spares sometime to put on the street,” Brooks said. “Sometimes, what we refer to as the fixed route system, we sometimes see a van, like the paratransit vans, running those routes because often we don’t have vehicles that are out of the shop to put on the street.”

Target 8 analyzed a year’s worth of bus maintenance records from the city of Columbia.

The investigation revealed Gillig brand buses received in 2007 and later cost much more to repair from February 2015-February 2016 than New Flyer buses issued from 1995-2001.

27 job order totals for New Flyer Industries buses cost $431,645.83 to maintain.

20 Gillig or electric buses cost $638,804.29. Eight other job order totals for vehicles that were not 35 or 40 foot-long buses used in areas like paratransit cost $14,113.75.

“It’s a really tough situation because you’ve got what you perceive as brand new buses, but they are the most expensive buses to operate,” Brooks said.

However, the cost of the new buses may be attributed to the era the bus was produced, and not necessarily the fault of the bus manufacturer.

“I wouldn’t necessarily label it as a Gillig problem as much, as it was the way the system was set up for that class of vehicle,” City of Columbia Fleet Operations Manager Mike Guilford said.

The fleet operations division evaluates repairs for all of the City of Columbia’s vehicles. If the problem is larger than what it can handle, he said they are sent to the original equipment vendor to be fixed. 

Cummins Engine company Mid-South is the main original equipment vendor for the engines of Columbia's buses.  Branch Manager Bob Penton confirmed the shop works on the engines of buses, but refused to comment further until he got clearance from his supervisor.

Jon Mills, director of external communications for Cummins, based out of Indianapolis, Indiana, did not give Penton clearance to go on-camera.

"We’re committed to serving the city with high quality products and service our partners and customers," Mills said over the phone. "In 2007 and again in 2010, emission regulations through the EPA became more stringent. That’s what we think the price increase might be related to."

A portion of the Gillig buses were obtained through a $2 million dollar federal grant dubbed the "State of Good Repair" program.

Brooks said so many breakdowns occur that a van is sent out in place of a bus about once a week.

The city would not disclose the exact routes the problematic buses go on and cited a rotating schedule. Guilford attributed the rise in prices to standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to the agency’s website, the 2007 Highway Rule mandates that pollution from heavy-duty vehicles be reduced by 90 percent by 2030. Engines would have to be adjusted to fit the mandate between 2007-2010.

“The EPA sets the standards, the manufacturers decide how to comply with the regulations and then we are exposed to it once it's put into service and we repair,” Guilford said.

Manufacturers are fined thousands of dollars by the EPA for each nonconforming bus they produce.

Brooks said the type of filtration system now required by the EPA is problematic.

“So, it’s as we’ve added this different style of bus with the filtration system in the fleet, we’ve found them to be much more unreliable,” he said. “They just have to go in more for different repairs. Those filters have to be cleaned out, or replaced. They are very expensive.”

Another issue is the way the buses are driven; they rarely reach top speeds. 

“The biggest hindrance to that system is that it doesn’t operate at highway speed needed for the buses to particulate and clean themselves out,” Guilford said.

Brooks and Guilford said the city has begun to move toward electric and compressed natural gas (CNG) buses.

The two CNG buses already in the fleet cost much less to maintain than their diesel counterparts.

The most expensive CNG bus, a 2015 Gillig, cost $13,599.23 to maintain.

The most problematic diesel bus, a 2010 Gillig, put a $51,187.06-sized dent in the budget.

One electric bus has been utilized by the city since November, and Brooks said three more will start to circulate in the coming months.

It is too early to say from the available data if the electric bus is will save as much as the officials hope.

“It’s a nationwide problem that I think it’s going to push the industry out of diesel engines quite frankly,” Brooks said. “It’s going to make people really look into compressed natural gas, electrics and other alternative technologies that may be out there and hasn’t been developed yet.”

Columbia’s transportation system may be getting a makeover.

Drew Brooks, multimodal manager for the city of Columbia, said Olsson Associates will examine the effectiveness of the current system. The agency began its 12-14 month process in March at a Public Transit Advisory Commission meeting.

“The Olsson Associates will be doing a comprehensive system analysis,” Brooks said. “Hopefully, this will help give us direction on how to improve.”

He said there was an approximate 10 percent decrease in bus riders since a major shift in routes and the overall system two years ago.

Early hypotheses include housing complexes creating their own transportation services and changes in where people can transfer onto different routes. Brooks said the agency may recommend using more electric buses.

According to Brooks, Columbia became the first city in Missouri to use an electric bus in November. Three more will be added to the fleet in June.

Diesel buses each cost $500,000. Electric buses cost anywhere from $450,000 to $780,000, depending on the size.

The three new 30-foot-long buses will each cost $450,000 and will be leased for a year. Brooks said each electric bus will save about $4,500-$6,000 a month in maintenance and fuel costs. However, it will take about two years for savings to outweigh the cost.

City of Columbia Deputy City Manager John Glascock said money saved from electric buses would be put into the transportation budget. This could be used for anything from potholes to bus repairs.

Fourth Ward Councilman and bus rider Ian Thomas said he hopes potential savings would go towards adding more buses to as many routes as possible.

“Even during full service hours, if you miss a bus you have to wait an hour,” Thomas said. “That’s not good, and people won’t use it unless they don’t have a choice.”

Brooks said the money could also be used to increase the pay of bus drivers and add services on Sundays. This could also reinforce the fleet in case buses need to be taken off of the road for repairs.

The reason why there are more filings than buses is because Brooks said vehicles rotate through departments across a fiscal year.

"We make an assessment of what vehicles go into different categories," he said. "If you see a repeat bus, it means more maintenance had to be done on that bus and there are separate charges."