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O.C.'s Clean-Fuel Buses Racking Up Repair Bills

Environment: Fuel leaks, faulty valves, mechanical failures plague the natural gas vehicles.


Clean-fuel buses that make up 40% of the Orange County Transportation Authority's fleet are plagued by mechanical problems, costing the agency nearly $1 million in repair bills and forcing officials to return pollution-spewing diesel buses to the streets.

The OCTA bought 232 of the buses from a Hungarian manufacturer in 1998, when federal rules went into effect banning the purchase of diesel buses and requiring all buses to run on clean fuel by 2010. The cost was $80 million.

But officials said the buses have been in constant need of repair ever since. Most of the defects affect the fuel system, which runs on liquefied natural gas. On Thursday, for example, 33 of the buses were out of service and awaiting repairs.

The authority is withholding a final $1.7 million payment to North American Bus Industries, the manufacturer, until the problems are resolved.

"We paid good money for these buses and we expect them to operate," OCTA Chief Executive Officer Art Leahy said.

Leahy said the repairs were costing the authority at least $900,000 in labor and materials.

"They need to assure us that these buses are going to be made ready for service, and we're going to demand it. We'll do what we have to do to be made whole financially."

OCTA is the 19th-largest transit agency in the United States. It handled about 60 million riders last year on 79 routes. The OCTA has 523 buses in its fleet.

OCTA inspectors discovered fuel leaks, faulty valves and rust soon after the LNG buses were delivered, officials said. That led to a series of increasingly terse letters between the agency and the manufacturer about the problems and who was responsible to fix them.

In June, North American President and CEO Patrick N. Z. Rona accused Leahy of illegally withholding the final payment.

He said most bus manufacturers aren't profitable because public agencies like OCTA refuse to pay their bills, then use the money to subsidize operating costs.

Rona didn't return a call Thursday to the company's U.S. headquarters in Alabama.

Similar mechanical problems have sidelined LNG buses in Phoenix, the first transit agency in the country to use them.

Workers there have fixed fuel leaks and sticking valves on the buses, said Glenn Kelly, an equipment analyst with the city's transit department.

Some of the problems stemmed from equipment that Phoenix asked to be used on the buses; others were design defects, Kelly said. The city has about 300 LNG buses out of 700 total.

"When we first got the buses, they were less than responsive," he said. "Since then, the quality has improved."

Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus system received 37 LNG buses in April.

A spokesman said the buses have been running fine.

In March, OCTA formed a technical team to investigate the buses' faulty fuel system. Problems included recurring leaks in fittings and valves, malfunctioning vaporizers that were sending liquid fuel into the engines, failing methane detectors and malfunctioning fuel tanks.

The gas is stored in two, 115-gallon tanks. It is kept at minus-200 degrees Fahrenheit, then heated and vaporized before it flows to the engine.

OCTA officials said they spent $100,000 to replace leaking fuel pipes and had to redesign the fuel-delivery system.

Workers then replaced some of the buses' methane-detection devices. Inspectors recently discovered a new problem: Linings in the double-hulled fuel tanks are failing to keep the fuel properly chilled.

Though the fuel system appears fine on paper, officials said, it simply hasn't held up to the constant jarring, bouncing and vibrations experienced in daily use.

The OCTA used federal grant money to purchase the buses. But the OCTA may be forced to partially reimburse the federal government if the buses don't last 12 years.

"There are certain responsibilities that we feel the manufacturer needs to take," OCTA Vice Chairman Tim Keenan of Cypress said.

"It's particularly aggravating because you expect a product to be delivered and have everything work."

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