by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

A shift in federal air quality funds could help the City of Greensboro purchase seven clean diesel replacement buses next year. While that’s only about one-third of the number of buses the city will need to replace in the next five years, transportation officials said the move is critical to reign in maintenance costs associated with the city’s aging fleet.

The average age of fixed route Greensboro Transit Authority buses is nine years, according to an equipment meter report YES! Weekly obtained from the city. There are 20 buses in the fixed route fleet with more than 500,000 miles logged. The average mileage reading for the 43 buses in the fixed route fleet is 431,504 as of this month.

Buses in the GTA fleet are required to have 500,000 miles or 10 years of service before the city can consider replacing them. GDOT Chief Adam Fischer told a transportation planning board recently that maintenance on aging buses was becoming “a growing issue.”

“It’s starting to hit our operations budget as maintenance on these old buses is becoming expensive and it’s hurting our operational budget as well,” Fischer told the Greensboro Metropolitan Planning Organization at its last meeting in May. “It’s costing us more to maintain than to operate these older buses.”

Labor hours logged on bus fleet maintenance increased by 29.7 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to data provided by the City of Greensboro. Mechanic turnover in 2014 and a labor shortage in 2015 have contributed to a recent decrease in maintenance labor. However, maintenance expense continues to increase on the fixed route fleet. The city spent $680,727 on fixed route maintenance in 2011, compared to $849,755 in 2015, an increase of 24.8 percent.

Fischer told the transportation board that staff struggled to find available money to purchase replacement buses. The last significant fleet replacements took place in 2005, 2006 and 2009 when federal money helped the city buy 29 buses. Fischer said that former Rep. Howard Coble worked to secure Congressional earmarks that helped the city pay for those new buses. Republicans have since banned earmarks in federal legislation.

“Now that there are no longer earmarks we are running out of avenues to find this funding,” Fischer said.

Transportation planners believe they have located a revenue source in a federal program used to improve air quality. The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Program was established in 1991 by the Federal Highway Administration. The program’s goal is to provide flexibility to state and local governments in paying for projects that fulfill requirements of the Clean Air Act. Greensboro is eligible for CMAQ funds because it is part of a maintenance area for air pollution known as Fine Particulate Matter (PM 2.5). Congress set aside $4.4 billion in recent years for the entire CMAQ program.

Locally, transportation planners select projects several years in advance. Projects for the 2016 and 2017 budget cycles were selected in 2012. NCDOT, which administers the federal funds to the local transportation board, recently asked them to review those selections.

Tyler Meyer, GDOT’s Transportation Planning Division manager, told the board that CMAQ projects are restricted to public transportation improvements, infrastructure operational improvements, and bicycle and pedestrian projects for which a specific benefit can be proven.

After receiving the request from NCDOT, staff revisited the local projects selected back in 2012. NCDOT made the request because available funds are expected to be 33 percent less than anticipated. Meyer said this leaves about $3.7 million in CMAQ funds available in 2016-17. CMAQ projects are paid for in an 80/20 formula, with the locality contributing 20 percent of project costs. With the local match included, a total of $4.58 million is available.

Planners selected three projects back in 2012 to receive the CMAQ funds. The plan had called for the city to buy six electric hybrid buses, pay for a major sidewalk project and to allocate $175,000 to PART to begin Saturday service on its Greensboro route.

The sidewalk project has to be rolled over into the next two-year cycle, Meyer said, bringing with it almost $3 million in CMAQ funding. The main sidewalk package is an 18-mile project that will improve walkability along English and Yanceyville streets, Pisgah Church and Lee’s Chapel roads and West Friendly Avenue. A second project to fill in sidewalk gaps along College and New Garden roads is also included.

Meyer said staff had underestimated back in 2012 how far along these projects would be.

“We’ve made a lot of progress on these projects, but it’s become clear that it will take a little bit longer to implement them,” Meyer said.

The city originally had intended to use another federal program to pay for the projects one at a time, but discovered along the way that they had to be in one combined project in order to qualify. Meyer said the addition of the College and New Garden Road project would add about $1 million to the package, but the project is ready to be completed within the two-year funding cycle.

“Once you start the clock on (a sidewalk project) it has to be implemented in a certain time frame of the city risks having to pay back the federal funds,” Meyer said.

Meyer told the board that staff recommends using the remaining CMAQ funds to purchase clean diesel replacement buses. The city can buy seven diesel buses for an estimated $3.1 million. The original plan had called for six hybrid electric buses at a cost of $4.1 million.

GTA estimates that they will need 19 replacement buses before 2018, Meyer said.

“We expect that in the 2018 timeframe we would come back and recommend an emphasis on bus replacement with the CMAQ funds at that time,” Meyer said.

The expansion of PART service to Saturday was not recommended due to lack of funds.

“Given the magnitude of the bus replacement needs, our best recommendation is focused on that,” Meyer said. “If those buses aren’t replaced on time then the maintenance costs begin to build and it will eventually become unsustainable for GTA operations.”

GDOT Chief Fischer agreed. “It is becoming a critical need to find a funding source to replace these buses,” Fischer said. “We feel like putting it in with the CMAQ funds is a good way to fund those replacements.”

Cheryl McQueary, who represents the region on the state transportation board, asked Meyer about the number of buses on the list, which increased from six to seven. Meyer explained that the city had decided to go back to purchasing clean diesel buses after buying 11 hybrid electric buses since 2011.

“We are trying to get the best out of this replacement situation by going with clean diesel as opposed to hybrids because they are less expensive,” Meyer said. Current clean diesel bus models are in line with Clean Air Act requirements and have new diesel standard engines.

Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips, a member of the regional transportation board, asked Meyer if there were other project options to be considered. Meyer reiterated the project requirements under the CMAQ program, noting that a few intersection improvements could be considered but were not far enough along in the planning process to fit within the funding time period.

“I think among the best uses this MPO has gone with is the bus replacement as well as (the sidewalks),” Meyer said. “If this bus replacement is proposed then we would follow up over the fiscal years 2013 to 2015 having replaced 11 buses using this program.”

The transportation planning board, known as the Greensboro Urban Area Municipal Planning Organization, will likely vote on the new projects at their June 24 meeting. !