More than a third of the buses operated by Baton Rouge’s bus system were out of commission due to mechanical issues for much of last week, forcing four white minivans into service to minimize disruptions, Capital Area Transit System officials said.
A mixture of high temperatures outside, issues with the system’s new electric buses and a lack of parts due to supply chain issues caused by the pandemic led to 24 of CATS’s 61 buses being unavailable Monday through Wednesday. As of Friday afternoon, ten buses were broken down, but the vans were no longer needed to fill in, the officials said.
“This is uncommon, but we just felt the need to do what we needed to do to get those customers to where they needed to go, so the minivan was the option at that moment,” said Dwana Williams, the chief operating officer for CATS.
Voters will be asked in October to extend a property tax that generates millions of dollars a year for Baton Rouge's bus system.
CATS’s maintenance department repaired 22 buses between Monday and Wednesday at the peak of the breakdowns, said Micah Anthony, the director of maintenance.
"My guys worked really hard last week and made some miracles happen,” Anthony said.
That was made difficult despite limited available parts because of a national backorder at the system’s bus manufacturer, GILLIG, LLC, said
Repairs have been complicated by a parts shortage. When the maintenance staff ordered new parts in May, the manufacturer, GILLIG, LLC, said there was a national backlog.
The backlog on some parts could last into early 2022, Anthony said.
The scorching heat last week made things even worse. Air conditioning units malfunctioned, brakes overheated and water got into the compressors of a “few” of the system’s new electric buses, Anthony said.
The fleet’s average age is 6.5 years, below the industry standard of 7 years, Anthony said.
Forty-four buses are normally used on any given weekday to cover all CATS routes, Williams said. At one point, 24 buses were broken down.
So the system turned to the vans, which are owned by CATS and marked as CATS vehicles, because they were the easiest way to prevent significant disruptions to riders, Williams said.
“It was quick thinking, quick action to use this resource until we could get our fleet back up to par,” Williams said.
The vans were used Monday through Thursday on Route 20, North Acadian Thrwy, and Route 60, Medical Corridor, which are both low-ridership routes, Williams said.
This isn’t the first time CATS has used vans to fill in for its buses; it did so in 2014 and again in 2015 at a time that the system’s fleet was much older, Williams said.
The system’s buses only allow 16 people at a time — about half their capacity — due to COVID-19 restrictions. The vans were only able to transport two people at once because of the restrictions, and the system didn’t receive any complaints from riders, Williams said.
The vans are not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Williams said, but there were safeguards in place to ensure suitable transportation could be called for if a van driver encountered a rider in need of an ADA compliant vehicle.
“Our job is to connect people to what matters,” Williams said. “When I see people are stranded on the street because they don’t have a way, we do what we can do to get people to where they need to go.”