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Brutal cold, aging fleet lead to a tough year for Pequot's bus garage

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An aging bus fleet coupled with brutally cold temperatures led to frequent breakdowns and increased maintenance costs for the Pequot Lakes School District’s transportation department this winter.

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Transportation director Randy Maxfield said this has been one of the toughest years for his department, straining his maintenance and supplies budget as well as his staff.

Maxfield said the biggest problem for his department is the age of the fleet; several buses are more than 16 years old. Of 26 school buses operated by Pequot Lakes, one is from 1993, two each are from 1995, 1996 and 1998, and most of the others are from the early 2000s.

“The majority of our problems were with the older buses,” he said. “It’s not so much the snow, it’s the cold. Even the electronics on the brand new ones will start to act up.”

Maxfield said that throughout the winter, typically three or four buses were not working on any given day.

The district purchased one bus each this year and last, but Maxfield said from 2008-12, no new buses were purchased.

Superintendent Chris Lindholm said the district has “some makeup work to do” when it comes to the aging buses. Neither Maxfield nor Lindholm was in his current position during the four-year period described, but both have felt the impact.

“There’s no question that the last five, six years of economic times have been brutal for everybody, and that includes school districts,” Lindholm said. “That was one way to save, one way to cut costs.”

According to numbers supplied by district business manager Jenny Max, the transportation department spent $42,692 on repairs and maintenance through June 30 of last year. Through March 31 of this year, expenditures were at $25,901, with a $32,000 budget. At the current pace, it appears the department will spend less this year than last, but the numbers indicate the district will again be over budget by more than $2,600.

Lindholm said that although all signs indicate older vehicles cost more to maintain, it’s impossible to pinpoint only one reason for the increase in repair and maintenance costs, and it can be attributed to many factors.

“We certainly need to invest in updating some of our bus fleet, and will hopefully be able to continue working towards that goal as we map out our 2015 budget,” he said.

At a March school board vision meeting, Maxfield told the board that his request would be for the district to purchase two new buses each year to replace the oldest vehicles.

“Keeping a newer fleet minimizes your breakdowns,” he said.

Lindholm described Maxfield’s proposal of two bus purchases per year as a “solid recommendation.”

Twenty buses in Pequot Lakes’ fleet run on propane fuel, while the six newest buses run on diesel fuel. The propane-run buses have an aftermarket kit installed where a switch can be flipped, switching the engine from unleaded gasoline to propane. Maxfield said the district saves money by running the buses on propane instead of regular gasoline.

Despite skyrocketing propane costs, the district did not see too much of an impact on fuel costs because of a contract with Lakes Gas Company that locks in a price. Maxfield said the district did voluntarily halt using propane for three weeks in February, however, to help with providing enough fuel to people’s homes.

The newer diesel engines may present a different problem for the transportation department, said Maxfield. To meet 2010 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses, an additive called Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) is used in diesel engines to improve exhaust emissions.

The temperature at which DEF freezes is 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Although a heater is built in to the selective catalytic reduction systems that use the fluid, temperatures consistently below zero appeared to have a negative impact, he said.

Maxfield said it’s difficult to attribute the breakdown issues to one thing or another, and it’s likely a combination of factors. Luckily for drivers, students and parents alike, most of the issues were detected before the buses took off for the day.

Pine River-Backus (PR-B) transportation director Tom Bristow reported that breakdown issues were mostly avoided this winter through use of the district’s heated bus garage.

“I don’t believe as far as breakdowns go that we were too bad. We have the new garage here, which has worked out well. Buses start well and we’re able to keep them inside. That worked out real well. When it gets cold like that, coming out of that warm garage it really makes a difference,” Bristow said.

Like Pequot Lakes, PR-B’s fleet of 23 buses is aging, though the oldest bus is newer and the newest bus is older.

For the 2011-12 school year, PR-B budgeted $34,000 for parts and labor and only spent $24,803.86. For 2012-13, the budget was $32,000 for parts and labor, while the district spent $34,499.50. During the 2013-14 school year, PR-B budgeted $32,000 and has so far only spent $23,387.02.

“We’re well within our budgeted expenses thus far through the year,” said business manager Jolene Bengtson.

The oldest buses at PR-B are from 1999. The newest bus is from 2012. Most of the buses land somewhere between those two years.

“We try to purchase one or two every year if we can, but there have been years where we’ve had to go without purchasing a bus. At this point I think we’ve done OK. We wouldn’t do it if we thought we were having problems with the fleet,” Bristow said.

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