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Good citizen fleets

Towns and cities across the country rely on their publically owned and funded fleets to fill many essential roles while also serving the greater good

Public fleets' challenges are as varied as their locations. In Florida, fleet vehicles are exposed to extreme heat most everywhere and corrosive salt air if they're near the coast. In Michigan, fleets endure very low temperatures and the rigors of snow removal, yet they have access to ethanol, which is produced in-state and whose use is mandated by law.

In California, where the weather is generally mild, public fleets must contend with air-pollution regulations that are more stringent than most other states. And in large metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago and Houston, public fleets battle traffic congestion, noise restrictions and heavy 24/7 work schedules that dare managers to keep vehicles on the road.

Despite their different sizes, locations and types of equipment, public fleets share a common element: They serve the public and are under constant scrutiny. “They're in the public eye,” note Donald Aull and Robert Crandall, principals of AC Technical Inc., which merged with Commercial Vehicle Consultants, a firm specializing in large municipal fleets. “It's a tough position,” says Crandall. “You can't have school buses idling, waiting for kids, when private sector diesels are not allowed to idle. It doesn't look good.”

As state budgets are squeezed tighter, not only are public fleet managers expected to do more with less, but they are expected to handle equipment ranging from electric golf carts to buses, act as a test bed for new vehicles, and adhere to the highest safety, noise and pollution regulations. In addition, all this must be done within a political and bureaucratic environment.

Because of this diverse challenge, public fleet managers often show creativity and unique management skills not always seen (or necessary) in the private sector. Some do everything that is expected of them, but also focus on one particular area of expertise that sets them apart from their colleagues.


The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) fleet is a prime example. The school's contingent of about 1,000 vehicles includes 25 heavy-duty trucks, 13 buses, including 3 cutaways, large vans for ferrying commuter students and staff, light-duty trucks for craftspeople and about 180 ‘slow-moving’ electric vehicles for light payloads and escort services.

Sherry Lewis, general manager of fleet and transit services at UCLA, says that her greatest challenge has been to meet the state's tight vehicle regulations. “The state has mandated that 75% of light-duty trucks must be alternative fuels and we have additional requirements on the university level.”

In her 14 years as manager, Lewis has grown the university's fleet from one that covered a small shuttle route feeding parking lots to a transportation program that handles more than a million riders annually, including transportation services to five surrounding counties.

An early adapter of alternative fuels, she eliminated diesel buses in 1998 in favor of compressed natural gas. “All our buses are natural gas,” she says, “and we're in a transition process, changing to ethanol for light-duty trucks.” Vehicles that cannot be changed will be replaced, since the school's gas tanks will be converted to E-85.

One of the advantages of being a campus fleet is access to academia. “We're working with the academic side for fuel cells,” she notes. “We hope to install stations in about a year.” Not only does the school benefit from testing new technologies, but so do staff and students, who have a real-life test bed to try out new ideas and approaches.

About five years ago, Lewis called on graduate students to build and install a GPS tracking system for campus buses. A commercial system was not viable at the time because the fleet had only 20 buses and commercial vendors would not build on such a small scale. “We're building on the GPS pilot project for security, to monitor idle time and offer more efficient dispatching,” she adds.

New Technology

Public fleets are often receptive to testing new vehicle technology, some because their large size enables them to put equipment through rigorous paces and others, like UCLA, because of their willingness to improve efficiency at low or no cost to them amid the continuing demands of meeting pollution goals.

Currently, UCLA is testing the automatic data reporting of smog results to the state through Bluetooth technology. While many state inspection stations report results electronically to state agencies, the wireless Bluetooth component is an important twist because it offers greater flexibility. Lewis also expects to test hybrid buses soon that will give greater range than current buses.

Even though UCLA's fleet is on the cutting edge in many areas, it still shares personnel challenges with other public fleets. “There is a shortage of technicians industry-wide and we suffer along with everyone else,” notes Lewis. “We do a lot of retraining of our technicians because it's difficult to find technicians with all the training you need for the new technologies. Our people have moved from being mechanics to technicians.”

Marilyn Rawlings, fleet manager for Lee County, FL, says that hiring good technicians is difficult, but keeping them is even more difficult. “I can get someone to come to my shop for an extra 25 cents an hour, but someone can take them from me for another 25 cents.”

Rawlings focuses on personnel issues by making people feel as though they are part of a team effort and not just working for a paycheck. “People work for money, but that's not all they work for.”

She has encouraged test-averse technicians to seek the ASE certification so her entire operation can receive ASE's Blue Seal of Experience. When some were reticent about participating, Rawlings appealed to their team spirit and also promised a big cookout and plenty of thank-you's. It worked. Not only did the technicians pass, but they accomplished something they thought was beyond them. Rawlings attributes part of that can-do spirit to a leadership program. “Everyone here goes through a 10-week leadership program — even me.”

Lee County's technicians have become so adept at special vehicles that they provide EMT transports for outside fire districts, hospitals and others. “Our techs really know fire and rescue vehicles, which have sophisticated electrical systems,” she notes.

Emergency Fuel Plan

When asked about her greatest overall challenge, Rawlings did not hesitate: “Getting fuel in the middle of hurricane season. You can never prepare for the devastation of a Charlie or a Katrina, but we must be able to meet the demand for fuel during an emergency.”

How does she do it? “I focus on the things I can control. I can't control the price, and if I had a long-term contract it wouldn't hold during an emergency anyway….What I can do is only do business with vendors who have emergency fuel capacity, who have an emergency plan.”

Rawlings adds that her style with vendors is one of building relationships; it's not adversarial. “We have to get away from that attitude so when I need them, they will help me. In return, I am a loyal customer. Price is important, but there has to be a relationship.”

Mechanically, the Lee County environment is tough on equipment. “The fleets up north have a road salt problem in the winter. Salt corrosion is a year 'round problem here.”

Rawlings estimates that salt corrosion cuts the life of equipment in half, especially for unique equipment like the “spiders” that are used to straddle a canal and dredge it as it skitters along the banks on articulated legs. The cab is like the arachnid's body.

Spiders and other equipment must often work in “sugar sand,” which is composed of ultrafine minerals that are extremely abrasive to machinery. “Between the salt and sugar sand, it's a tough environment for equipment.”

Cold Weather Concerns

In contrast, Michigan public fleets fight the cold, and Rose Wilson, director of Michigan's fleet operations, says that keeping snowplows and other equipment on the road during cold weather emergencies is her department's challenge. Because this equipment takes such a beating, and maintenance is expensive, Wilson makes certain to get the most out of each vehicle. “We're looking at every dime, every day.”

Under Wilson's watch, the state eliminated about 2,500 vehicles; it currently has about 7,550. Through an information system that constantly updates usage data, Wilson is able to get rid of underutilized vehicles. She has also increased the number of motor pools to increase sharing. “We have a cap on vehicle fleet size [for departments] but we will grant waivers. It's not automatic, though,” she says.

Michigan's current fleet includes about 1,000 heavy-duty vehicles, 1,500 light-duty trucks, 185 van bodies, 56 dump trucks and about 500 full-size vans.

During a financial downturn in the 1990s, the state began leasing vehicles; it is now fully leased, with most maintenance outsourced as well. Leasing is a prime focus for Wilson. “The heavy trucks go out for maintenance and repair….For us it's more efficient and cost effective….You have to test maintenance costs against local market rates.” She says that the state still maintains some local facilities for emergency repairs.

Is leasing for everyone? Maybe. “Public fleets should explore leasing for their own environment,” says Wilson. “It helps to be centralized.” She also says that there are political issues to contend with, however, and points out that in some states leasing may be against the law.

“For us, leasing is a way to manage cashflow and give us a flow of funds for replacement. We need fewer vehicles, for example, if we replace them at about 100,000 miles….Younger fleets need less maintenance, too, which lowers our costs.” She also added that there are tax incentives for leased vehicles that are used on federal projects.

Total Life Cycle

“We're seeing more public fleets leasing than we've seen before,” notes Randy Owens, senior vice president of Mercury Associates. “It's part of a focus on the total cost picture….Fleets are not just keeping vehicles on the road, but focusing on the total life cycle. They're managing total vehicle assets.” He adds that it is common for public fleets to increase or decrease their fleet size based on their budgets.

“We work with many muni fleets who just have a number of vehicles in mind but don't know why. They say it's just grown to that.” To prevent “fleet creep,” more fleets are drawing on vehicle allocation methodology — such as Wilson's continual updating of vehicle usage data — to determine fleet size and how best to pay for it.

Fleet size notwithstanding, Wilson's biggest challenge right now is higher fuel costs. In June, her office instituted a 1¢/mi. fuel surcharge to address the rising cost of gasoline statewide.

Even though real costs are expected to rise 26¢/mi., the department has been able to limit the increase because of lower mileage estimates, extending passenger vehicles to 100,000 miles, a one-time tax credit paid by the IRS, and other administrative savings. Wilson has the added task of installing ethanol tanks because Michigan produces it.

Just as leasing is one of Wilson's priorities, warranty programs are a hot-button issue for Bill De Rousse, Motor Vehicle Superintendent for Everett, WA. “We have an aggressive warranty program,” he says. “We have set a goal of recapturing five to 10% of all capital purchases….We're pretty close.”

The department received $167,000 in 2005, $248,000 in 2004 and $251,000 in 2003, with the different amounts reflecting buying bulges.

De Rousse makes extensive use of software programs that let technicians know if a part is under warranty, as well as letting the tech know which parts must be held for the vendor and which ones can be discarded.

The most important step to building a warranty program is to become an approved warranty center. This can be a daunting task because local vendors, who rely on warranty business themselves, must approve the deal. “You have to show that you will still give business to the local vendor,” says De Rousse, who has over 20 years of fleet experience in the public and private sector handling warranty programs.

Warranty Potential

Establishing a warranty center as extensive as Everett's is not for every municipality. He suggests that fleets must meet some conditions in order for the program to be worth pursuing. “You need high-usage vehicles — like transit vehicles — to make the program worthwhile, because these vehicles represent nearly half of your warranty actions.”

He notes that if a fleet has no transit vehicles than it should have sanitation vehicles or similar pieces. “Larger, more expensive, highly used vehicles have the best warranty potential,” he says. Barring transit or large expensive units, a fleet must have at least 1,000 vehicles to make the full-fledged warranty program worth the effort, De Rousse says.

Besides these issues, he argues that building partnerships with vendors is crucial because requesting warranty reimbursements is exacting work and fleets must make certain that all details involved in the process are just as the vendor wants it. “We even work with an outside vendor to handle the paperwork on some models,” De Rousse adds.

Factors Affecting Replacement Cycle

  1. Geographical area of operation
  2. Annual usage miles, hours, fuel consumption
  3. Image
  4. Severity of usage
  5. Available funds
  6. Interest rates
  7. Effectiveness of maintenance program
  8. Vendor maintenance and parts support
  9. Skill of maintenance personnel
  10. Availability of equipment, i.e., is new equipment available and does your equipment spend more time in the shop than on the job?
  11. Equipment obsolescence
  12. Resale value
  13. Cost of new equipment vs. maintaining older equipment
  14. Purchase incentives
  15. Company growth

Courtesy of Bill De Rousse, Motor Vehicle Superintendent, Everett, WA

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