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story.lead_photo.caption Joel Gardner, executive director (from left), Jason Lance, operations manager and John Williams, transit coordinator, inspect Saturday Jan. 13 2018 a new bus delivered to to Ozark Regional Transit on Saturday morning. It is one of eight new buses that ORT will receive. - Photo by Flip Putthoff

SPRINGDALE -- Ozark Regional Transit continues to provide public transportation a year after fire destroyed most of its fleet, but is struggling to rise from the ashes financially.

The wind-whipped fire started in the early morning hours of Jan. 10, 2017, and destroyed 20 buses, depleting the fleet and impairing the transit provider's ability to maintain bus routes. Explosions launched parts of buses more than three blocks away.

"I've got a whole world of buses that are down to their bumpers on the ground because of the fire. It's carnage," Executive Director Joel Gardner said while surveying the damage the following morning. "We've got two vehicles in service right now out of the entire fleet."

The fire is believed to have started when a particulate filter on the exhaust system of one of the buses overheated during cleaning. Wind gusts of 50 mph fanned the flames through the parked buses. The buses' fiberglass bodies added fuel to the fire.

A handful of buses not on site during the fire ran limited routes in the ensuing days. All minivans survived the fire and remained in service. They provide much of the on-demand paratransit service for riders who are disabled or functionally unable to use the fixed-route bus services.

Within days, buses rolled in from around Arkansas and surrounding states as Razorback Transit and other providers pitched in to help Ozark Regional Transit field a multicolor "Skittles" fleet of mismatched makes, models and sizes of buses.

INSURANCE SETTLEMENT

The agency got an insurance settlement of $714,000 for the destroyed buses, Gardner said. Three new, low-floor, medium-duty buses rolled in Saturday morning and five more are expected in the next week or so.

The eight new buses were purchased with $114,000 from the insurance settlement and two federal grants of about $360,000 each. The new buses cost about $120,000 each.

"We can actually start returning some of the loaned and leased vehicles back to their homes," Gardner said. "We're still running 90 percent of our fixed routes on borrowed and leased and loaned vehicles. We have one or two of our vehicles out there on any given day. It will be nice to get away from this varied color fleet of different things that we don't own."

The remaining $600,000 from the settlement has been set aside to help buy up to 13 more new buses, Gardner said.

"What are we going to do for the other 13 buses? We still don't know yet," Gardner said. "That's the grant application that we filled out in August. We're hoping for the federal government to look positively upon us and hopefully they grant us that rebuilding money."

Ozark Regional Transit asked the Federal Transportation Administration for $8 million for the 13 buses, office improvements and a compressed natural gas fueling station.

"Worst case scenario, hopefully they only give us those buses in diesel or they could give us the buses in CNG and the CNG fueling facility, leaving out the office," Gardner said. "Or, they could grant us money for diesel buses and an office but hopefully they don't grant us CNG buses without a CNG fueling facility. They'd be 34-foot, low-floor transit buses."

Ridership has never recovered, ending 2017 down some 17 percent year-over-year.

"The ridership isn't taking a nose dive, but it's not coming up either," Gardner told his board in December. "The majority of it is people found alternatives or went back to what they were doing and haven't come back."

Gardner said in addition to ridership being down, advertising income was down and operating and maintenance costs for the system's mostly borrowed buses was way up. In addition, Washington County cut $100,000 from its contribution to the agency, saying there wasn't enough ridership, and George's poultry company dropped a sponsored route in Springdale.

The temporary vehicles have all been functional, but they were part of contingency fleets and most came with issues, Gardner said.

"We had to buy new tires, we had batteries that were 3, 4 or 5 years old that we had to get up to speed. When we did full inspections on everything, some of these vehicles had been sitting for anywhere from a few months to a couple of years and all of the rubber had to be brought up to speed, hoses, belts, airbags -- I've bought more airbags for stuff that I never expected to buy airbags for," Gardner said. "I've bought tire sizes that I never would have dreamed of us buying. Batteries, where normally I'm buying a $120 battery at my rate now I'm spending close to $300 for a battery to outfit one of these larger, more powerful diesel engines. So, just a lot of weird stuff that we never would have purchased before at prices we never would have considered."

BUDGET SHORTFALL

Gardner said he's looking at a $338,000 shortfall in this year's budget. He's asking for more money from the cities and counties the transit system serves or it will have to cut routes and hours of service. Fayetteville increased its contribution by $122,000.

Gardner said while recovering from the fire, the transit service had to keep doing all the usual day-to-day things, such as run the buses on time, prepare a budget, complete federal reviews and audits and also participate in a bus rapid transit study.

The fire could have been an excuse for a pity party but it wasn't, Gardner said.

"I guess I could have used that excuse for quite some time but if we'd started using that excuse, I don't know that we could have gotten away from it," Gardner said. "We would have had that victim mentality that would have settled into that expectation that everybody's got to take pity on us because we had a fire. No, no, we're not going to let the fire define us."

Don Marr, chief of staff for Fayetteville and an Ozark Regional Transit board member, said he's optimistic through thoughtful rebuilding, Ozark Regional Transit can serve Northwest Arkansas better and more efficiently.

"I think the direction that our region is taking right now and it's discussions regarding transit could put us in that position of having a much stronger system after overcoming such a catastrophic event," Marr said. "It isn't without continuous challenges but does show our resilience and that is something I'm very proud of for all of us."

Marr has been a proponent of reorganizing routes and service for efficiency rather than basing routes on contributions received.

Gardner said he recently had a chance to share what he's learned with a transit service in Victoria, Texas, which lost 30 of 90 buses to a fire.

"I've learned it's time for me to pass on my knowledge to somebody else so they don't have to go through the painful experience of making it up as you go along and hoping you get it right and letting them know that there's hope," Gardner said.

Metro on 01/15/2018

Print Headline: Year after fire, agency gets new buses

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