Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Buy American: Example MTA buses

Few people would guess that a standard 40' MTA bus costs over half a million dollars. $556,774.00 to be precise.  The previous generation of MTA's hybrid buses cost even more, about $750,000.

New MTA New Flyer diesel bus 
Even fewer people know that transit agencies using federal funds (nearly all of them) have to buy American made buses by law and that transit agencies can choose only between three North American bus companies: New Flyer (MTA's buses, headquartered in Winnipeg, Canada), Nova (St Francois du Lac, Canada) and Gillig (Hayward, California. (another bus maker, North American Bus Industry, NABI was purchased by New Flyer in 2013).

New Flyer and Nova assemble their buses in the US to qualify. 49 CFR661 mandates that 60% of a bus' components by cost must be of US origin. One can easily imagine what such a % figure does for rational manufacturing. Such as skimping on the chassis so it stays under 40% if it is foreign made.

To make matters worse, both bus companies use the same Cummins engines to propel their buses.
The New Flyer bus hybrid diesel electric model

When the MTA bought recently 172 new buses for 97.8 million (162 of them replacing old buses, 10 are added to the fleet for the Baltimore Link roll-out), only New Flyer provided a bid, the other company was too busy to even bother. All buses are 40' buses, the 60' "articulated" buses cost even more.

By now readers will guess that the Buy American requirement has a price.  The provision is in effect since 1991 but it is also a suitable illustration in the discussion about "America First". Trying to buy and make only at home can back-fire, not only in real hard $ but also in choice and in product quality.

The MTA has a fleet of 750 40' buses plus about 40 articulated buses and moves about a quarter million people a day. (By comparison: MTA New York runs 5,750 buses).
The Gillig bus, America's largest bus manufacturer

That's a lot of people who care about how quiet, smooth, clean and reliably their bus runs. The MTA has the 26th largest bus fleet in North America according to 2015 data, but the 7th largest New Flyer fleet. Could MTA bus patrons have a better ride, quieter buses, higher fuel economy and a more modern design if  bus companies could buy from an unrestricted market? Would transit agencies have to pay less? New York's MTA which doesn't use federal funds for their buses occasionally thinks so. In 2008 a sleek articulated Mercedes Benz bus could be seen plying Manhattans streets for test purposes only.  No purchase came of it.

Hard to say how foreign buses would compare. Even though the geographic spread of the market is huge, North American bus manufacturers don't have an easy time to survive. The number of just two companies is testimony to many bankruptcies and buy-outs in a market where demand is based less on need and more on what funds bus operators have access to to buy replacement buses. (FTA can provide up to 80% of the cost with a 20% local match). If no federal money is available transit agencies run their buses beyond their 12 year expected life span to the detriment of rider service and the detriment of the manufacturers. (MTA's oldest buses are 14-15 years old, according to Administrator Paul Comfort).
The Mercedes Citaro city transit bus

The corpses of bus makers line transit routes, so to speak. They include foreign makers that tried their hand with plants in the US: Among them the  German bus company Neoplan (bankrupt in 2006), Orion a subsidiary of the German Mercedes Benz company. The US bus maker Flexible went bankrupt in 1996. The scarceness of available US buses poses transit agencies in a precarious condition. At times they have to wait for their buses. Certainly not a condition that generates price competition. This situation may be temporary.

New technologies will certainly shake up the bus market, just as Tesla demonstrated it in the car market. Already there are two small bus companies (one with Chinese roots) that make all electric buses. Federal agencies also tested fuel cell buses.

In the meantime, anyone who ever rides  Dutch, German or French buses will realize that US transit buses seem to lag behind their European counterparts in design and innovation. Low-floor buses, now  also common here, were first introduced in European cities; so where buses with three doors, wider front boarding doors, longer rigid body buses with double rear axles, double-articulated buses for BRT on separate right of ways, and buses with frame-less glazing for the side windows.
CityPilot self driving bus

A new Mercedes Benz Citaro Euro 6 bus could be bought for $300,000 in 2014. It can be bought with EPS (electronic stability system) and as "CityPilot" it can also bought as a self driving version for test purposes.

"America First" is tricky business.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

updated for inclusion of Nova Bus

Baltimore Business Journal article about MTA bus procurement
Mineta Transportation Insitute report: The US Transit Bus Manufacturing Industry
Fuel Cell bus report
New York is testing a Mercedes Benz Bus
Citaro Bus brochure