URBANA — Just in time for next week's return of University of Illinois students, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District will have about a dozen new hybrid buses on the streets.
The MTD recently received 13 of the 40-foot coaches from New Flyer Inc. in St. Cloud, Minn., and is gradually putting them into use, said Dave Moore, the agency's maintenance director. As of Wednesday, 10 of the new hybrids were on the street.
"It's like anything else. Once we're done in the shop with them, we just don't throw them on the road," he said. "We give them to our training guys and they'll take them out a day or two, with the drivers in training. That way if there are any bugs, it's not on an in-service bus that would disrupt people's way to work or school.
"Once we're satisfied that there are no problems, we'll put them out on a regular route. One thing you don't want to do is put a bunch of new vehicles out on the same day, or make a major change and say, 'I hope this works.' We don't want to do that. We don't want to have to explain to the public why we didn't get you to work or school."
In addition to easing the buses into service, the MTD has to equip each vehicle with fare boxes, onboard computer systems, interior and exterior cameras, signs and decals, even special turn signals. It takes more than two days per bus to make the changes, the most time-consuming of which is to swap the onboard GPS-type systems from the old buses to the new ones.
"What we did was to have the factory run the wires onto the new buses, and then we took the old equipment, which is really only a year old, and put it on the new buses. It literally saves hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.
Because UI students have been gone for most of the last month, it was the perfect time for the MTD to make the switch, Moore said.
"We take the bus out of service and transfer over all the equipment. We only have a day or two of being short that bus," he said. "With the U of I out of session our service is down about 20 percent, so this is an ideal time."
For the most part, the new vehicles will replace 1996 and 1997 buses that have piled up anywhere from 600,000 to 780,000 miles, Moore said. But three of the old models will be retained, giving the MTD a fleet of 103 buses, 42 of which are the higher-efficiency, lower-polluting hybrid models.
Eventually the MTD hopes to have an all-hybrid fleet, said MTD marketing director Jan Kijowksi, but that depends on the availability of federal and state funding.
Although the hybrids cost more to purchase than standard diesel buses, operating costs are significantly less. According to the MTD maintenance staff, the combined maintenance and operating costs of a 1997-vintage standard bus are about 47 cents a mile, versus 31 cents a mile for a standard 2003 model and about 16 cents a mile for a new hybrid.
Although part of the lower costs for the hybrids can be tied to their newness and their warranties, Moore noted that the hybrids get about 22 percent better mileage, need less frequent brake work and use much less transmission fluid. And parts need less frequent replacement, he said.
"Based on fuel savings and maintenance savings, we figured we would (make up the higher purchase cost of the hybrids) over the life of each bus," Moore said.
Based on more than two years' experience, Moore is satisfied with the MTD's hybrids.
"The actual hybrid system has not only met expectations, it's exceeded," he said. "We've had, until recently, zero issues, and the issues we've had were very minor."