It isn't necessarily the oldest buses that are giving mechanics the biggest headaches. The newest vehicles, those extra-long, articulated craft, have been nothing less than a nightmare. For one thing, they are equipped with fancy new computers that mechanics aren't trained to fix. They are also plagued by serious glitches in the air conditioning systems that have rendered them useless in Miami's forbidding heat. "My biggest problem has been how can I maintain my oddball equipment with unqualified personnel?" mutters Archie Saunders, assistant general superintendent of maintenance. "This new equipment has had problem after problem, and most of my staff hasn't had any normal training."
In the past, normal training meant a six-month training course. Budget cuts have eliminated the program. What's more, Metrobus lost many of its most experienced mechanics a few years ago; they jumped over to Metromover for the promise of higher wages. "We hired a lot of new mechanics in a hurry," Saunders says. "They went basically from filling out the application right into the shop. They didn't know the front of the bus from the back. Some of them still don't."
As a result of the bus shortage, Dade has had to withdraw its promise to loan 77 buses to the Olympic Games in Atlanta this summer; the county will be one of only a handful of Midwestern and Eastern communities not chipping in any buses for the Olympics.
Vernon Clarke says that even without a specific tax earmarked for transit -- a dedicated funding source -- there's plenty MDTA management can do to improve bus service. "We don't need a dedicated source of funding," he grumbles. "I think we're using it as an excuse." Clarke argues that if upper management, the Dade County Manager's Office, and Metro commissioners were to focus more intensely on bus operations, service and efficiency could be improved 20 to 25 percent simply by redirecting routes, coordinating bus schedules, and generally tightening things up.
"We need a totally independent review of the system," he says. "Someone who won't pull their punches needs to come and take a look at it. Looking at it universally, I know the rail could be a good component. But it really frosts us in bus operations and maintenance to see all the emphasis on rail. We're going for pie in the sky when we don't have our feet on the ground. This whole operation is on the verge of collapse."
As the days wound down before the county manager released his proposed budget this past month, there was apprehension among bus personnel about the hits their system might take. Staff layoffs? Route curtailments? But in the end, County Manager Armando Vidal proposed to leave the bus system alone. He did, however, request that the Bicentennial Park Metromover station be shut down owing to low ridership.
The news elicited smiles at Metrobus headquarters.