Old buses keep on truckin’ after leaving Metro Transit

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2014 - 10:52 AM

This year Metro Transit will retire 75 buses and put most of them up for auction.

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Bus No. 844

After more than a decade of shuttling passengers across the Twin Cities, Metro Transit bus No. 844 has made its final run. But it won’t be rusting away in retirement.

Even with more than 400,000 miles on its odometer, its best days may still be ahead.

City buses have to be taken out of service after 12 years on streets, regardless of condition, according to regional guidelines. Buses typically spend a couple years in the seasonal ‘State Fair fleet’ and then are retired/auctioned.

Bus No. 844, a 2001 Gillig Phantom, was the perfect vehicle for Bill Jones, who recently bought it on an online auction.

He’s transforming it into the Rock and Read Bus, and this summer he will use it to help elementary and middle-school kids in north Minneapolis sing their way to a better vocabulary and motivate them to read.

Jones spent last weekend taking out the seats and giving the bus a fresh paint job. Next he will install countertops with room for 30 laptop computers connected to an onboard server. A Florida company is donating the “Tune Into Reading” software, which he’ll use to have children read a story, then sing it. The students will get a score for both the musical and academic aspects.

Not like sitting at a desk

“Kids need different ways of learning. They love it and they get involved,” said Jones, citing a University of South Florida study that found a similar program helped students raise their reading ability by one grade level over a nine-week period. “This will be like a rolling computer lab. It’s something different than sitting in a wood desk in a classroom.”

This year Metro Transit will retire 75 buses and put most of them up for auction. Over the years, buses have been sold to transit systems in Africa. Others have been reincarnated as bookmobiles, petting zoos, arts buses and even grocery stores. Many are bought by scrap dealers who sell parts to other transit systems, said Rob Milleson, Metro Transit’s director of bus operations.

“They go to a variety of organizations that can squeeze life out of them,” he said.

Fare boxes, bike racks and destination signs are removed. Used buses fetch between $3,000 to $3,500 each, a small fraction of the $435,000 that Metro Transit has spent on each of the 75 buses being decommissioned, said Metro Transit’s Mark Hagman, who is in charge of selling retired buses.

‘Cleaner than any apartment I had’

Jones said he was ecstatic to drive his newfound treasure off the lot at Snelling and St. Anthony Avenues, where transfers of ownership take place.

“I expected the bus to be in bad shape. I thought it would be dirty and the floors, well, I’d budgeted for carpeting,” said Jones. “It is cleaner than any apartment I had when I got out of college.”

Once it is refurbished, Jones and partner Ann Kay of the Center for Lifelong Music Making will bring the Rock and Read Bus to the North Commons YMCA on West Broadway and possibly the Boys and Girls Club and schools. Up to 200 kids — 30 at a time — will board for weekly 30- to 45-minute sessions. Kay said using an old Metro Transit bus is key to attracting kids.

“They are highly recognizable even if they don’t have the big T on them,” he said. “They know that is a city bus. We are going to marry the bus they see every day with the fun and reading success.”

Jones is starting with one bus but dreams of expanding his fleet to three or four.

“There is real appeal when the bus drives down the road and pulls in,” he said. Even though the bus won’t transport children, “it feels like you are going someplace in a positive way.”

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