- Associated Press - Sunday, March 2, 2014

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.

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