LEWISTON — Twin Cities transit officials are calling a recent change to the federal declaration on the longevity of their Blue Bird buses a vindication.

“It’s recognizing that we have been doing the best we can to keep these buses on the road,” Phil Nadeau, Lewiston’s deputy city administrator and chairman of the Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee, said. “It’s recognizing that these buses themselves have been problematic.”

Nadeau said the Federal Transit Administration has declared the working life for the 2006 Blue Bird buses bought for the Citylink bus system to be 10 years, not the 12 years they originally claimed.

“The business of waiving the remaining federal interest in these buses is huge,” Nadeau said. “If you say that you are done with that bus before it’s met that full life, you are responsible to pay the FTA back for what they spent.”

Nadeau said it also lets Citylink and operators Western Maine Transportation Services take the buses out of service without incurring a federal penalty of about $147,000.

“We now have a path to their replacement, which is what we are starting to work on today,” Nadeau said. “We are going to hopefully get into a place where we can use one of the buses to cannibalize and use parts to support the other buses. That will be helpful, too, and may help eliminate some of the problems we’ve had getting parts.”

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Citylink has 13 buses in its fleet, enough to operate seven routes and shuttles downtown and around the Auburn Mall area Monday through Saturday.

Four are Blue Bird buses purchased in 2006. The Blue Bird buses have been in and out of service for maintenance since they were purchased.

“One is out now, waiting for parts,” Nadeau said. “That’s been the biggest problem for us, getting parts. It turns out that there were limited numbers of these buses made and so there is not a broad amount of parts available when we’ve needed to make repairs.”

All of Maine’s buses have been purchased using Federal Transit Administration matching grants. The federal government pays 80 percent of the cost of a bus while state and local agencies split the remaining 20 percent.

As part of the agreement, the local agencies need to maintain the buses. If they do not and the buses are retired early because of poor maintenance, the local agency can be required to repay the FTA grant. Nadeau said if the Twin Cities decide to retire any of the Blue Birds next year, they would have to repay $36,600 per bus, per year.

A state audit in 2013 blamed the Twin Cities’ problems on poor maintenance. The Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee brought in its own consultant later that year who suggested that the buses may not have been made to operate in Maine’s climate. Those buses have brake lines and steering links that sit lower than other parts of the bus, making them vulnerable to potholes, train tracks and other road hazards.

That report was filed with the federal agency in December 2013 and accepted last Friday, based on a letter from the federal agency to the Maine Department of Transportation.

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