BAT official: Bus fleet rapidly aging

Posted Feb. 10, 2009, at 9:38 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Representatives from the state’s four largest municipal bus systems sent a message this week to Maine’s congressional delegation that they sorely need federal dollars to improve their collective fleet of vehicles.

Officials from Bangor’s BAT system, Portland’s Metro System, the Lewiston Auburn Transit Committee and South Portland’s Transportation and Waterfront Department convened in Lewiston on Monday to indicate the degree to which their systems have been underfunded.

BAT superintendent Joe McNeil said six of his 18 buses are well past the point where they need to be replaced. The life of a typical bus is 12 years or 500,000 miles, he said. What’s worse is that several more BAT buses are a year or so away from reaching the end of their lives.

“All of our vehicles are inspected regularly and they are very safe,” McNeil said Tuesday. “We’re doing the best we can, but where we’re shy is federal money. In years past, that money has been there.”

Other bus systems are in even worse shape.

According to a story published Tuesday in the Lewiston Sun Journal, Portland Metro’s superintendent, Dave Redlefsen, said 10 of his fleet of 27 buses have more than 700,000 miles. The same story outlined a situation last summer in Lewiston when four of the city’s newer buses went out of commission at the same time.

McNeil said he’s lucky that BAT, which serves Bangor, Brewer, Hampden, Veazie, Orono and Old Town, has fared a little better.

The interesting paradox of rapidly aging equipment is that the need for bus services is greater than ever. BAT ridership eclipsed 800,000 in 2008 for the first time in the system’s three-decade history and is expected to keep growing, which would create a need for more buses.

Just this week, BAT announced a deal with the University of Maine and the town of Orono to add a new route to serve those communities.

Another issue that was raised at Monday’s meeting was increased maintenance costs to systems. If buses are old but cannot be replaced, repair costs rise at a steady rate and that burden falls on the systems.

South Portland’s maintenance costs have increased 43 percent since 2006, according to the Lewiston Sun Journal.

McNeil said the good news is that money was earmarked in the federal stimulus package approved Tuesday by the Senate. It’s not clear, however, how or when that money might be distributed. At $400,000 per bus, BAT could use $2.4 million to replace the six that are past their prime.

“Our delegation has been supportive of our concerns,” he said.

Representatives from the four transit agencies said they plan to hold town hall forums around Maine in March and April to call attention to the problem.

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