MTA’s ‘Sparky’ bus sidelined in supply chain woes; South Bibb route coming

Buses are expected to run to the Interstate 75 and Sofkee industrial parks next year


Liz Fabian

“Bolt,” one of the Macon-Bibb County Transit Authority’s two electric buses, pulls into the garage. Supply chain challenges are extending time in the shop.

If you missed seeing Macon-Bibb County Transit Authority’s electric bus “Sparky” recently, you can blame persistent supply chain problems.

Recently, the authority’s two electric buses were off the road after compressors went out.

Most recently, Sparky was down for about 10 days.

“Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean are the parts we need,” MTA President & CEO Craig Ross told the authority this week. “It hasn’t paralyzed us in any means, thank goodness.”

While the authority was able to keep moving with Sparky in the shop, Ross is concerned about future maintenance issues.

Sparky now is back on the road with “Bolt,” the authority’s other electric bus, but Ross wants to be prepared. The transit authority is buying up spare parts for the electric vehicles purchased from China’s BYD, or Build Your Dreams manufacturer, that also has a plant in Lancaster, California.

“Trying to get two of everything of the big items. We’re limited to what we can carry in inventory. Trying our best to stock up on that,” Ross said.

Disruptions in global production and staffing during the COVID-19 pandemic have triggered a ripple effect across the world that has cargo ships lining up along the coasts.

Two more BYD buses for Macon-Bibb are on order and on the production line, but aren’t expected to arrive until late January or mid-February, Ross said.

The Defense Authorization Act of 2019 prohibits transit authorities from using federal funds to buy from the Chinese company in the future.

“That kills me,” Ross told authority members. “We couldn’t ask for better service… they’re wonderful people and we’re going to miss that relationship.”

The transit authority is now looking at electric buses from the Canadian company New Flyer, which is more expensive, he said. Those buses also rely on parts from China.

“That’s something we’re going to have to be looking at,” Ross said in his monthly report. “This could be critical at some point, so I wanted to let you know. It’s cloudy ahead. We’ll keep you informed.”

Ross and authority members and staff are headed to Orlando next week for the American Public Transportation Association convention where they will explore the latest technology and trends in transit.

The authority currently has Federal Transit Administration grant applications pending, including one for nearly $800,000 to purchase three electric Paratransit shuttle buses under 30 feet, charging units and spare parts. A local match of $196,000 is required.

The authority also seeks nearly $4.5 million for another electric bus, training, spare parts, maintenance and transit yard expansion.

Expanding with new south Bibb route

The transit authority never stopped running during the pandemic, but COVID-19 lockdowns and reduced travel curtailed ridership over the past 18 months.

September marked a return to operating in the black as far as ridership metrics are concerned, Ross said.

Staffing drivers also has been an issue.

In August, authority chairman Frank Tompkins reported a shortage of 10 full-time drivers. Under its vaccine mandate, the authority will not hire anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination, which means two shots of Moderna and Pfizer.

Ross said they are making progress filling positions.

Come the first of next year, the authority also plans to add a south Bibb County route that could cover industries such as Tractor Supply, Amazon, Kumho, Irving Tissue and the new 5 million-square-foot plastics recycling plant that will open in a couple of years.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure folks have the ability to get to the airport area. We can provide that so they can apply for better paying jobs,” Ross explained during a summer briefing.

In the coming weeks, planners will be meeting with company executives to determine ridership needs and shift changes.

If a substantial majority of a company’s workers come from outside Bibb County, a stop at that industry might not be required, Ross said.

Lynn Farmer, director of Macon Works for the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce, also sits on the Transit Authority and applauds efforts to expand the bus line.

“We have a lot of folks in the urban core and the inner-city areas that are served by the bus routes,” Farmer said. “We don’t take them to those jobs out in the industrial areas where there is a great need, and the pay is higher.”

Through her job, Farmer concentrates on providing local businesses and industry with qualified workers while matching students with necessary job skills. The new bus route, which is expected to be in place next year, could be a big boost to employment.

“It’s nice to have Craig at the helm at the transit authority because he understands the true connection between transportation and workforce development,” she said.

The authority’s fleet and staff also is expected to get a boost, Ross said.

“We’re still in the planning stages but we’re probably going to have to have a couple of more buses and we’ve got to make sure we have drivers, too.”

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.