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Port Authority has long wait

| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2002

A 35-foot Orion 1600 Series (foreground) and a 60-foot Neoplan articulated bus can be seen at the Port Authority's West Mifflin garage. In March 2003, the Port Authority will take delivery of 60 35-foot-long buses made by the Gillig Corp. of Hayward, Calif.

Any motorist who's ever pulled too far into an intersection — then had to reverse to make room for a turning bus — knows Pittsburgh is home to some awfully narrow streets.

In neighborhoods from Mt. Washington to Troy Hill, some roads are so skinny that only 60 or so buses in the Port Authority of Allegheny County's fleet of 1,000 are short enough to operate there. Of those, one-third are nearly 20 years old and have more than a half-million miles on the odometer, making them the oldest Port Authority buses on the road. And while the transit agency has agreed to pay a California bus maker $20 million for 60 new buses, the replacements aren't due to arrive until March 2003.

Regular maintenance should keep the buses on the road until then, but many will likely end up in the scrap yard after the new buses are here.

Experts say nationwide, transit systems such as the Port Authority must commonly wait a year or two after ordering new buses, because there are only a half-dozen companies in North America that build the kind of hard-wearing vehicles needed for city transit.

Amy Coggin, a spokeswoman for the American Transportation Association in Washington, D.C., attributes the problem to years of minimal government spending on transit, which meant there was only enough business for a few bus makers. She said the underfunding trend has started to reverse only in the last decade or so.

"It really has to do with many, many years of disinvestment in public transportation in this country," Coggin said. "There just was very little money available to public transit agencies, so they just weren't buying buses."

Throw in light-rail, magnetic-levitation trains and other forward-looking transit projects, though, and the competition for funds still is heated, she said.

Meanwhile, the Port Authority's short buses aren't getting any younger.

Brian Macleod, vice president of Hayward, Calif.-based bus manufacturer Gillig Corp., said the number of companies in the business reflects the demand. True, there are only half a dozen or so bus makers in the United States and Canada, "but the market itself is smaller. There's only about 5,000 buses made a year in North America."

Gillig Corp. makes about 1,200 of those. The company is selling the Port Authority its 60 new buses for about $310,000 to $320,000 each, with the remaining $800,000 to $1.5 million covering spare parts and training on operation of the vehicles.

Another factor lengthening the wait on bus orders is the fact that most of the time, each agency placing an order has its own set of specifications, Macleod said.

"There's a lot of work involved, because the buses are essentially custom-built," Macleod said.

Leasing buses would be a quicker option, but it's too expensive, Port Authority officials said. Plus, many of the buses available for lease belong to other transit agencies, and they're not going to lease their best buses, said Bob Grove, an authority spokesman.

The agency is spending about $1 million to lease 20 buses as part of a plan to ease traffic while the lanes of the Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel are out of commission in 2002-03, respectively.

In the meantime, authority officials say regular maintenance has kept their buses in good working order.

"If there was any kind of (mechanical) issue with them, they wouldn't be on the road," Grove said.

The Port Authority has done a good job in keeping its 35-foot buses — 20 of which were bought in 1983, the remainder in 1992 — running, Macleod said. Federal law requires that buses be kept on the road for 12 years or 500,000 miles.

"If a transit system can get a bus to last longer than 12 years, they're taking care of them fairly well," Macleod said.

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