The wheels on the buses won't go 'round

A white Ford F-250 pushes a 1989 Oak Harbor School District Blue Bird bus out of the way of traffic Friday afternoon until a tow truck could pull it back to the bus barn.  - Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times
A white Ford F-250 pushes a 1989 Oak Harbor School District Blue Bird bus out of the way of traffic Friday afternoon until a tow truck could pull it back to the bus barn.
— image credit: Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times

There's never a dull day at the Oak Harbor School District bus barn.

But last Friday was an extra challenge for Transportation Director Francis Bagarella and a couple of his bus drivers.

Bus number 4, a 1986 Blue Bird, broke down near Regatta and Whidbey Avenue early Friday morning, just blocks from the school district bus barn on Midway Boulevard and E. Whidbey Avenue. The bus didn't have any students on board and was towed back to the yard.

Mechanics had not pin-pointed the problem as of Monday morning, but suspect it's a fuel-related issue, possibly air in the fuel line, he said.

That afternoon bus number 22 quit after braking for a stop light at the intersection of W. Whidbey Avenue and Oak Harbor Street.

Driver Roland Prochaska said the wheels just wouldn't go as the big yellow bus sat idle at the intersection amid the high school rush-hour traffic.

Prochaska had just left the bus barn and was headed to pick up homebound Oak Harbor High School students. Minutes after the breakdown, Oak Harbor Police arrived on scene, Prochaska hopped aboard a replacement bus and the school district transportation system was nearly back on track.

The breakdown was a first for Prochaska, who's enjoyed a 23-year bus driving career, the last two with the Oak Harbor School District.

Thanks to a police escort and a "nudge" from a white Ford F-250, the bus rolled forward through the intersection, onto the shoulder and out of the way of traffic along the two-lane section of W. Whidbey Avenue.

A tow truck later moved the 1989 Blue Bird back to the bus barn for inspection, where mechanics confirmed that the problem stemmed from a dislodged accelerator control cable.

The average life of a school bus is 13 years, according to the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Pubic Instruction. The two Oak Harbor buses that broke down last Friday were 24 and 21-years-old, well over the average life span.

Roughly "30-plus" buses transport Oak Harbor students to and from school each day, said Bagarella, although the district owns 50. The extras are used for field trips and as spares to rotate into the system when another bus breaks down.

The fleet is on a continual replacement plan, he said. Depending on school funding the district received "two or three new buses every other year."

The 2009/2010 school year is an off year for bus replacement, but a few shiny new buses are expected next year.

Each brand new large Blue Bird Bus costs about $113,000.

Although Friday was an anomaly, the district's aging fleet is only going to get older as new buses trickle into the system, which means the bus barn maintenance crew will have to stay on their toes.

"It was a crazy day," Bagarella said.

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