City seeks replacement of 'inferior' bus fleet

June 06, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

The buses that rattle down the brick streets of Annapolis have become staggeringly hard to maintain and must be replaced, city officials say.

City Hall and transportation officials say that less-sturdy buses were purchased after a bid controversy in 1987, when then-Mayor Dennis M. Callahan ordered that the contract be awarded to a company that had been disqualified. The entire fleet is now in disrepair, they said.

All 10 of the Thomas City Liners bought then have required frequent repairs and even had to be shipped to the company's headquarters in High Point, N.C., for work, costing the city an unexpected $125,000 a year, City Administrator Michael Mallinoff said.

"We're spending $195,000 this year for maintenance instead of $70,000 because these buses are inferior," he said.

Transportation Director James Chase was out of town and unavailable for comment. But another high-ranking transportation official, who did not wish to be named, said the Thomas buses were not designed to withstand 15 hours on the road and nearly 2,000 passengers a day.

Alderman John Hammond, who chairs the City Council's Finance Committee, said he was told the local distributor often doesn't have repair parts in stock, causing lengthy, costly delays.

"Apparently, it's either go back to North Carolina or wait a long time for the parts," he said.

Patco Distributors, the Annapolis company that won the bus contract after a contract battle in 1987, denied that the manufacturer is responsible for the problems.

"A number of the road calls they made included things like running out of fuel," said Steve Leonard, vice president of Patco. "I don't think that should be directed back to the manufacturer and the product."

He also suggested that the city lacks proper facilities to maintain its buses well. Several had to be shipped to the company plant because the city did not have equipment for suspension work and repairs, he said.

Ocean City, which also has Thomas buses, is completely satisfied with them, according to Hal Adkins, the city's public works director. Mr. Adkins said there's been "zippo" problem with maintenance or getting parts, but he pointed out that all but two of the buses are only on the road between Memorial and Labor days.

Patco won Annapolis' bus contract only after Mr. Callahan ordered that the bidding be reopened.

A city purchasing agent had disqualified Patco for failing to respond to questions concerning the maintenance history of its buses. An angry mayor declared that such "technicalities" would cost the city money.

Mr. Callahan argued that Patco was the low bidder and that the company's maintenance records were on file because the city had been running Thomas buses for two years. Political foes said the mayor became involved because the company is owned by J. Patrick Henry, a friend of Mr. Callahan's and a minor contributor to his 1985 campaign.

"This is the first word I've ever heard of it, and it's an election year," said Mr. Callahan, who is running again for mayor this year. "It's a heck of a coincidence."

Mr. Mallinoff and Mr. Hammond say transportation officials made it clear that the Thomas buses were not the best bargain, although they were $20,000 apiece cheaper than those offered by a New York firm.

Because 95 percent of the cost of new buses is subsidized by state and federal grants, the city did not save money by purchasing a lighter-weight model, Mr. Hammond said. "My advice is hey, when we look at these purchases, there certainly should be consideration of the life of the buses."

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