“We take care of our passengers because we figure if we have a 97-98 percent on-time schedule, buses seldom break down and we give people accurate information; that’s all we can do,” Banasiak said.
Sun Metro will soon go out to bid to get riders next bus information via computer and smartphones by late summer or early fall.
“Passengers will have that information literally at the tips of their fingers,” Banasiak said. “They can know exactly when their bus will be there.”
Sun Metro has a working relationship with Amtrak, which leases agency space in the agency depot. It also works with the New Mexico Department of Transportation, which runs a route from La Cruces, N.M., into El Paso.
“It has been a great commuter system,” Banasiak said. “My wife uses it all the time and it’s full.”
Bunce said the Sun Metro fleet consists of 103 NABI, 39 New Flyers and 25 Millenniums. The 1991 models will finally be retired and replaced in July.
The old buses need plenty of work because of El Paso’s location. The city is 4,000 feet above sea level, with summertime temperatures reaching 100 degrees, so Bunce said it’s not uncommon for turbo chargers to be glowing red, so bus cooling systems need to be pretty robust.
The air conditioning units have to contend with cold air escaping the buses in the summer when bus doors open and because of the dust and dirt, severe-duty air filters from makers like Fleet Guard are needed to keep the intake system clean.
“Again, it’s about spending the money up front on the durability instead of on the back end when it breaks down.” Bunce said.
Sun Metro is also completing a $38 million operations center, which is a very welcoming addition for the maintenance department, Brunce said because right now roughly 167 buses are being stored on 13.5 acres, while the new center will have 37.5 acres and fit upward of 270 buses comfortably.
The facility will open up just in time for the arrival of new articulated buses, which will run in what could become the crown jewel of Sun Metro.
A new standard in BRT
Sun Metro is building a $140 million four-corridor bus rapid transit system, which will feature 100 stations along 50 miles of line. Banasiak said each of the stations will have Wi-Fi allowing riders to use electronic devices seamlessly along their commute.
“One of the biggest things now that we have the infrastructure set and we have this BRT system is now it’s all about economic development,” Banasiak said. “It’s about how we can utilize our BRT corridors to make the economy better.”
Banasiak said the most exciting transit-oriented development associated with the BRT is happening in the northeast part of El Paso on the site of a former mall. The 30-acre mall had not been used in at least a decade, so Sun Metro bought seven acres for $5 million to build a transit center on it. The purchase spurred the city to buy the other 23 acres, raze buildings on the site and now Sun Metro is in negotiations with a major developer to put up a major TOD development, which also recently received a $10 TIGER grant.
Banasiak said the project is looking at building 130,000 square feet of retail space; 800 residential units; 480 parking spaces; and 7,300 linear feet of street. It could be a $130 million development, Banasiak said, and the terminus will be a BRT route, which has gotten the attention of the Federal Transit Administration.
The development is also near Fort Bliss, which has seen its population swell from 30,000 to 100,000 in recent years due to $5 billion in investments from the federal government. FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff even came out to see the TOD project, which Banasiak said is creating excitement for federal leaders who want to see the possible economic development potential of a major BRT system.
“This is a major TOD development usually reserved for a light rail system,” Banasiak said about the BRT project. “Everyone is really excited about how it’s going to turn out.
“And that’s the big thing. You know, when you looked at the property before, it was rundown, now it’s nothing but flat land, ready to be developed, so it’s really exciting and the city is really excited. The people were there for the breaking down of the old mall. You should have seen the crowd when that first ball hit the side of that building. There’s a lot of anticipation for that area.”