March 27, 2013

Wichita, mayor take new buses out for a spin

City officials unveiled the first four buses Wednesday in a long-term plan to update the city’s aging public transit fleet.

City officials unveiled the first four buses Wednesday in a long-term plan to update the city’s aging public transit fleet.

Mayor Carl Brewer stepped on the gas — literally — as one of the city’s new $368,000 buses lurched into action in the transit bus garage parking lot on Waterman for the official premiere of the city’s first replacement buses since 2006.

And the city is serious about enticing new bus riders to try the new fleet: Rides initially will be free on any bus with the “check out your new ride” billboard, Brewer announced.

The four buses were bought with a Federal Transit Administration grant, which funded 83 percent of the cost, or approximately $1 million of the $1.47 million project.

Brewer took media members for a test-drive around the garage parking lot — he doesn’t have a commercial driver’s license, making a test-drive on city streets illegal — a move that evoked some jokes from council members who attended the event.

“Can I get a settlement from the city?” council member Pete Meitzner asked City Manager Robert Layton as he walked in front of Brewer’s bus.

The event comes a day after the Wichita City Council approved a plan to seek further federal grants to buy as many as 20 buses over the next two years. Also approved was a five-year procurement plan to allow the city to set prices for more new buses, with a goal of replacing the 56 buses in the fleet.

Brewer touted the increased comfort and safety of the buses, calling the announcement a key first step in the rehabilitation of the city’s outdated transit system.

Transit Director Steve Spade said Wichita is operating one of the oldest transit fleets in the region. The fleet travels nearly 2 million miles annually. By 2014, 64 percent of the city’s fleet — 36 of 56 buses — will be older than the projected “useful life” of 12 years.

“As the fleet gets older, our maintenance costs go up, our service dependability goes down and as a result, we don’t provide as good a service to the community,” he said.

The four new buses meet 2010 Environmental Protection Agency standards, burning an additive called Diesel Exhaust Fluid, which limits toxic air emissions while improving gas mileage by about 10 percent, Spade said.

“That’s increasingly important to us when we’re using 400,000 gallons of fuel a year,” he said.

New buses will run on diesel or compressed natural gas, if a feasibility study approves natural gas as a bus fuel.

The new buses also feature a “low-floor configuration,” with no steps at the entrance and a front-door ramp to accommodate wheelchair users.

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