Humvee restoration specialists turn focus to school buses

The Maine Military Authority wants to use its Loring Air Force Base facility to save school districts money by extending the life span of their school buses.

LIMESTONE — Lenny Goff might just have figured out how he can keep his school district’s 48-bus fleet up to date and safe without breaking the bank.

Under normal circumstances, Goff’s district — Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18 — would have to purchase five new yellow buses each year to meet the Maine standard of replacing a bus after 10 years and 125,000 miles.

But at $80,000 to $90,000 a pop, that’s not realistic, Goff said, especially as school districts across Maine cut budgets to keep pace with shrinking revenues.

That’s why Goff recently sent two of his district’s 10-year-old buses to the Maine Military Authority facility on the former Loring Air Force Base in Aroostook County.

The buses are back on the streets of RSU 18 this week driving students to school and transporting athletes to competitions. And they’ll likely endure another decade of constant stopping and going before they need to be retired.

“Why not get another 100,000 miles on it?” Goff said. “It’s money well spent.”

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen visited Maine Military Authority’s sprawling property on April 7 as part of his statewide listening tour.

The authority’s staff members are proposing to use the base facility they’ve traditionally used to restore military issue humvees and howitzers for a different vehicle: the yellow school bus.

For $30,000, the Maine Military Authority team can completely remake a school bus body that’s often rusting and rotting after a decade of use, said Tim Corbett, the Maine Military Authority’s executive director. The remade body can usually still operate on the original engine, he said.

The impetus for the refurbishing operation is a discrepancy between the durability of the bus body and its engine. The bodies of newly manufactured school buses generally hold up for 10 to 12 years, Corbett said, while the engines can function up to 20 years.

“We feel we’ve solved the disconnect problem,” he told Bowen.

The two Messalonskee buses sent to the Maine Military Authority needed leaks sealed; seats re-bolted; frames blasted, primed and painted; and new stairs and battery compartments. The military authority specialists separated the body from the frame to address structural deficiencies.

But aside from routine mechanical repairs, the team barely had to touch the bus engines.

The Maine Military Authority has spent $100,000 to develop its bus refurbishment program — officially called the Service Life Extension Program — based on the U.S. Army’s vehicle life cycle management model.

Now, the authority wants a piece of the approximately $8 million in state funds devoted annually to new bus purchases so it works in districts’ favor to refurbish, rather than purchase new.

“If I do this, do I affect the safety of the students? No,” Goff said. “What I do is I put them on a safer bus than they were on before.”

And for about a third of the normal cost.

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