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Feds footing the bill to replace Wichita Transit's clunkers

Wichita Transit is taking bids on new hybrid cars to replace its 14-year-old Taurus staff cars, like this oneIt took an act of Congress for Wichita Transit to get some new staff cars.

Using federal economic stimulus money, the city department is seeking bids for three new hybrid vehicles to replace its 14-year-old fleet of hail-damaged Ford Taurus sedans.

Transit officials also are replacing a utility pickup using stimulus money. The one they have now is 15 years old.

“What we’ve done in the past is purchase old city vehicles,” said Transit Director Michael Vinson.

The cars are primarily used by supervisors responding to problems in the field and for employees to drive from the Transit headquarters at Waterman and Rock Island to City Hall, at Central and Main.

Records show the replacement vehicles are expected to cost about $105,000, to be paid from the city’s share of federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Better known as the stimulus bill, the act was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in February.

The federal money will allow the department to replace some “very old Ford Tauruses, that are well beyond their useful life,” Vinson said.

Steve Goben, the department’s maintenance supervisor, said the Tauruses were bought in 1995 and the utility truck in 1994.

The two Tauruses that were parked outside the Transit Center Wednesday showed their age.

There were signs of leftover adhesive from generations of city stickers being affixed and removed, along with dozens of pock marks in the sheet metal from a storm that dropped golf-ball-sized hail on downtown Wichita July 8.

The Public Works Department has estimated that switching to hybrids will save about 20 percent on operating costs, Vinson said.

Overall, the Transit Department has qualified for $6.6 million in stimulus money.

The biggest expenditure planned is a $2.2 million van-maintenance facility. The stimulus also will be tapped to pay for purchasing and some operating costs for 18 transit vans, city records show.

Council member Jim Skelton said it probably is time for Transit to replace its well-used staff cars, but questioned whether that’s what the stimulus money is really intended for.

“If the goal of the stimulus is to stimulate the economy, I don’t see how this does that,” he said. “I guess it helps the car companies, but I just don’t see how this is going to be putting people to work in this community.”

He said he’d rather see more federal money going for street repairs, “something we can do in helping provide an environment for a business to grow and prosper.”

In addition, he said, running a city car for 15 years or more is the exception rather than the rule, and he’d like to see that change.

Skelton runs a painting company and uses a pickup he bought in 1995. Despite occasional maintenance expenses, the old truck still costs a lot less than the payments on his other truck, which he bought last year.

He said private businesses generally try to squeeze all the years and miles they can out of their vehicles to cut costs, and he thinks the city should do the same with its staff cars.

“I think they should be falling apart before they get rid of them,” he said.