LEWISTON — Either Citylink’s operators have done an abysmal job of taking care of their fleet of buses, or the buses, purchased with state oversight, were lemons from the beginning. It depends on whether it’s state or local officials talking.

For Phil Nadeau, the Citylink bus system’s travails are simple: As recently as seven years ago, they got hold of some bad buses.

“This is not the normal way of doing business,” said Nadeau, chairman of the Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee. “We’ve had to fall back on any number of resources just to stay operating — to get parts, to keep buses running. The problems we are having are not normal. It should not be like this.”

But Mike Merwin, a consulting inspector for the Maine Department of Transportation, sees it differently: Lewiston-Auburn and its contractor, Western Maine Transportation Services, simply failed to take care of the buses.

“Buses today are full of technology, and you have to keep up with it,” Merwin said. “You can’t falsify records to say that you performed maintenance when you’ve never looked at them. You have to do the maintenance. It’s your money, my money, everybody’s money.”

The L-A Transit Committee has hired Carlsbad, Calif.-based bus maintenance expert Halsey King to review Western Maine’s maintenance practices, state purchasing policies and some of the buses Maine has purchased in the past decade.


That report is due out in a few weeks. Nadeau said it will show just what the problems are. He has confidence in Western Maine.

“(Merwin) can say whatever he wants, but we feel strongly that we are in a much better position to disagree,” Nadeau said.

Citylink has had problems with its buses for years. It has 10 buses in its fleet — enough to operate seven routes and shuttles downtown and around the Auburn Mall area Monday through Saturday.

Two are Thomas/SLF buses purchased new in 2002; four are Blue Bird buses purchased new in 2006; and three are Gillig buses purchased new in 2011. The 10th is an El Dorado shuttle purchased in 2008.

L-A officials blamed difficulty in getting parts for the Thomas and Blue Bird buses for forcing the district to sideline several in 2008 and again this past summer. Those problems led to delays on routes and threatened a total shutdown of the system.

“We have to assess what’s going on every day with repairs and parts availability,” Nadeau said. “Until something does come in, some part that’s been unavailable for weeks, we do what we can. It’s been an unfortunate situation.”


Nadeau said King’s report should show that the problems are with the buses.

“I’m paraphrasing him, but he did not anticipate finding the number of problems he did with the type of buses we have,” Nadeau said. “He’s putting the report together to help us figure out what we’re dealing with and also to help Western Maine find parts. But, it turns out, there is much more to it than he expected.”

Buses worthy of use in a municipal fleet are not impulse purchases. Prices can start at $300,000. That’s before they are customized to meet a city fleet’s needs — special logos must be applied and fare boxes must be installed.

Maine’s rural bus agencies — such as Citylink and Bangor’s Community Connector — rely on help from the state and federal governments. All of Citylink’s buses were purchased as part of a pool with other Maine transit agencies through an agreement with the state and the Federal Transit Administration. Federal money pays 80 percent of the cost of the bus, and the state and local groups split the rest.

But that comes with a few caveats and one of the most important is that the local agency has to take care of the buses. Each bus is rated to last a certain number of years — 10 years for a smaller, lighter-duty bus and 12 years for a heavy-duty bus.

If the bus is put out of service early, the local group must repay the federal government for the remaining life, based on the longevity rating. For a $400,000 bus pulled from service three years short of a 12-year life, that can mean the bus agency owes the Federal Transit Authority as much as $80,000.


That’s the situation in which Bangor’s Community Connector system now finds itself. That agency had to sideline seven 2002 Thomas/SLF buses two years ago because pf rust and corrosion problems.

“When they came up for state inspection, my mechanics checked them and they could not pass them because of the rust,” said Bob Dawes, equipment director for the city of Bangor. “The frames were completely rusted, so we contacted the state.”

Merwin, a private contractor hired by the state with Federal Transit Administration money, said he reviewed Bangor’s buses. Each showed an unexpected rate of corrosion and rust. He’s working with the state to get Bangor a waiver so the city doesn’t have to repay the federal agency.

“We have documentation on each bus that shows the damage is greater than $50,000, which is a lot to put into a bus that’s just going to keep rotting out,” Merwin said.

Citylink has two 2002 Thomas/SLF buses from the same lot, and they were both taken off the road this summer for similar issues. Nadeau said the L-A Transit Committee has asked the state to include LATC buses in the waiver request to the Federal Transit Administration.

But Merwin said that should not happen: Bangor’s problems occurred despite Bangor’s maintenance efforts, Merwin said. LATC’s problems stem from a lack of good maintenance, he said.


“We’ve known about Bangor’s problems for years, from the very beginning,” Merwin said. “But LATC never reported any problems until very recently.”

Merwin in June issued a scathing review of LATC’s maintenance efforts, citing nine violations for failing to keep appropriate maintenance records and eight for problems with anti-lock brake systems and speedometers. It alleges that Western Maine Transportation Services staff inspected vehicles and put them back into service with obvious problems.

“If you do your maintenance, you won’t have these issues — you catch them beforehand,” Merwin said. “And now, for Lewiston-Auburn to come out and say, ‘Look at our buses. They are all rotted out. This must have happened in the last few months.’ Well, I have documentation that shows they have not reported those problems before. But now they do.”

That’s what’s really behind L-A’s problems, he said.

“My feeling, and I can back up what I’m saying, is that there’s a maintenance problem here,” he said. “There has been for a long time and it needs to be addressed. It may sting for a while, but fixing it won’t hurt anybody.”

Nadeau defended Western Maine’s maintenance efforts.


“I’m not going to stand by and be told by somebody like Mike Merwin that we are in the position we are today because Western Maine was not doing X, Y and Z with preventive maintenance and inspections,” Nadeau said. “That’s a conclusion he’s arrived at in his report. I think the evidence I have is pretty compelling that it’s not.”

Nadeau said the problem with the Thomas buses indicates a larger problem with the buses the state and the local transit agencies purchased.

“The dispute is, for better or worse, that we bought the buses we thought we could afford, and we thought they would last for 12 years,” Nadeau said. “I’m not trying to blame anybody for buying those buses. What I’m saying is, maybe we didn’t have the information we needed at the time. And now that we know what we know, what are we going to do?”

The 2002 Thomas buses were Citylink’s first low-floor buses compatible with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and they are in common use around the country today. With no stairs to climb, they are easier for handicapped passengers to use.

“But there were questions about low-floor buses and winter environments,” Nadeau said. “There are questions about designs of suspensions, their engines and the potential for corrosion problems because of their proximity to the ground.”

A bus rated nationally to last 12 years in Los Angeles or Phoenix might have a much shorter life in Boston, Buffalo, N.Y., or Maine, Nadeau said. It’s a distinction he didn’t consider until Halsey brought it to his attention.


Maintenance expert King said that issue would be a big part of his report.

“We are in the middle of looking at that right now,” King said. “These buses do seem wrong for the duties they are called upon to do in the area where they are used. You use something like 50,000 tons of salt on your roads and that has an impact.”

LATC’s problem have continued with four low-floor Blue Bird buses the agency purchased in 2006. The buses have been out of service regularly, and Nadeau said Western Maine has had difficulty finding replacement parts.

Nadeau expects the King report will show that it’s not only a problem with Citylink.

“You could be the best maintenance operation in the country and still be confronted with these issues associated with parts, part quality and availability on these buses,” Nadeau said. “And I’m not just saying that now. They are not designed to stand up to the rigors of transit, even under the optimum situations with these buses.”

Citylink is recovering, Nadeau said. It purchased three $500,000 Gillig buses in 2011 through the state system, and they are proving to be much sturdier. Last week, the LATC agreed to purchase three used Gilligs from the Portland Metropolitan system. Those buses should be in service next week.

“The Gillig buses are 10,000 pounds heavier,” Nadeau said. “From everything I’ve learned, the Gillig buses fit the true profile of a 12-year bus. They have a heavier profile and better suspensions and are built to withstand much more.”


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