It's a painful question: "Where do buses go when they die?" And I hope parents will talk with their children before letting them see this article. If they pester you for information, feel free to show them the escort ads in the back until you're ready.
But when the time comes, you can start by telling them that the buses they know and love will be with us for a long time. Allegheny County's bus fleet is fairly young, which is ironic since the population it serves is so old. After a recent acquisition program that involved purchasing some 525 new buses in recent years, the average Port Authority bus is just under six years, says Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove. "That's as young as anyone around here can remember."
Bought new, a standard 40-foot bus costs about $300,000 to buy -- a little more than a Hummer, but with a slightly larger cargo capacity. The Port Authority doesn't make such sizable investments lightly: The federal government, which provides money to purchase mass-transit equipment, requires that each bus be driven for at least a dozen years or a half-million miles. "That doesn't mean that when the clock strikes 12 we automatically get rid of it," Grove says. "If it's in good shape we continue to keep it."
Unfortunately, however, when the bus has reached the end of its route, metaphorically speaking, it's worth considerably less than what the Port Authority paid for it. "We usually end up selling them for scrap," Grove says. "We just sold 104 of them, and the average price was $750 apiece."
That seemed low to me -- most buses I'm on are carrying $900 in hardened gum alone -- but it turns out that there isn't a bustling market for old buses. Somehow, most people don't just wax nostalgic for buses in the same way they do, say, railroad trains or ships. We sing of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the rail-driving exploits of John Henry, but who will memorialize the Neoplan AN440A in verse, or offer a hymn to the hardy souls who pilot the Port Authority's "Flxible" bus, with its accordion-style fold in the center?
Well, there are a few who seek to commemorate the passing of buses: A local group of bus enthusiasts, the McKeesport-based Antique Motor Coach Association of Pennsylvania has collected more than a dozen buses of yore, and Lemoyne, Pennsylvania, boasts a Museum of Bus Transportation, where one may marvel at the timeless bus designs of yesteryear.
But the supply of defunct buses, sadly, outpaces the demand. In fact, Grove says another 100 or so coaches are about to join their forebears on that one-way trip to the Busway in the Sky. The Port Authority is about to sell them off to the highest bidder ... and yes, any of those buses could be yours.
Just one thing: If you want to actually drive the bus, Grove notes, "You have to have a commercial driver's license, and one would hope you'd have some training." And since I know there are libertarians out there, yearning for the day when the free market will be given a chance to overthrow the jackbooted government tyranny that is public transit, be advised: You can't just buy up buses and start your own public-transit line. The Port Authority must approve any application to get into the transit business, and it suffers no rival. "It wouldn't work to have bus lines competing against each other for the same routes," Grove says. "That's what it was like in the 1950s" -- back when competing private bus lines often worked at cross-purposes to each other, offering different schedules and fare structures.
But for those of you who just long to have a bus for your personal use -- sort of the way Ultraviolet Loop riders do, but all the time -- there is hope. If you did bid for a bus, "You'd be bidding competitively with scrap dealers," Grove points out. Based on current market values, that means you could easily have a bus of your very own for about $800. Just think about it: The wind in your hair, the romance of the open road, the vaguely threatening graffiti -- all for the equivalent of just 228 one-zone round trips!
Dreams like that never die, even though the buses themselves do. At least, that's what I plan on telling my kids someday.