Kevin Bunce, assistant director of maintenance for Sun Metro, said buses on the system have a 12-year or 500,000-mile life cycle, but when the agency began retrofitting diesel buses to run on natural gas in the 1990s, it changed the life cycle of the buses, meaning the agency had to wait much longer to replace them.
And the way the agency approached service to its fleet made it very difficult to keep buses on the road.
“When I first came here in 2006, the on-time performance was measured in if the bus actually showed up at all much less on time. It was that awful,” he said. “Now we have a 97 percent on-time performance and that’s measured by when it’s supposed to show up not if it’s going to show.”
Sun Metro began pushing more preventative maintenance on its bus fleets, Bunce said, instead of waiting for the units to break. Once it became priority-one of the maintenance shop, they then put an emphasis of getting OEM replacement parts as opposed to “parts that just fit.”
The usage of OEM parts has saved the agency significantly because it keeps buses on the roads because there’s less failure than cheaper aftermarket parts, which can also damage other bus parts when they fail and affect other units.
Local vendors also bid to sell OEM parts to the agency, Bunce said, so if they need to get something like Bendix brakes they get the best price possible from local suppliers who want to sell the parts to Sun Metro.
“There’s some pretty interesting characters out there selling some pretty interesting things,” he said. “We use the phrase that sometimes I can’t afford to have you save me any money.”
Bunce said maintenance department leaders are still changing attitudes to this day because some employees liked the old system, but when a new bus is purchased all technicians must undergo extensive OEM training to make sure they can fix all the components to keep it running.
“We can go out and buy the best bus there is, but if my techs don’t know how to work on it, then it’s a piece of crap,” he said.
On-time performance for Sun Metro is 97 to 98 percent. Banasiak said road calls continue to decline despite the system’s aging fleet.
“Probably the biggest reason we’ll continue to be successful is our employees,” Banasiak said. “They understand what we want to do and they understand we’re the best transit system and we want to continue being the best.”
Sun Metro has even tackled vandalism issues by teaming up with an El Paso community organization. Graffiti was an issue on display boards at the transit centers, so the agency reached out to Creative Kids, which put different Hispanic artwork displays in areas that had been popular targets for graffitists.
The artwork is created by children from low income families or children who have terminal diseases or are battling disabilities in the El Paso area.
“It’s a good opportunity to showcase some of the wonderful pieces of art the children made and share them with our community as well as help stop or reduce graffiti and tagging,” he said “It really has. We hardly get tagged anymore.”
Birth of a world-class system
After the system was stabilized, Wilson said El Paso leaders were able to get out of crisis mode and develop a forward-thinking strategy for Sun Metro.
“We’re a large urban area with about 700,000 people in the city and slightly less than 1 million in the region and that doesn’t count our Mexican visitors who use the system,” she said. “We need to have a world-class, reliable public transit system for this community if we’re going to be competitive with other cities.”
Sun Metro is putting an emphasis on improving customer experiences. Banasiak said in the past several years the agency has spent $8 million on new shelters along with $31 million building four new transit centers. Each of the centers has Wi-Fi and real-time displays so riders know exactly when their bus will arrive.
The agency has even partnered with Big Boy Concessions to open restaurants in the centers, so riders have a chance to get something to eat while waiting for their ride.
The downtown transit center draws 20,000 riders per day, Banasiak said, so the demand is there for amenities to improve their ride.