Building on a partnership with ElDorado lasting 23 years, the Cincinnati paratransit agency prides itself on distinctive, long-lasting vehicles
By Richard Tackett
Beginning in 1994, the relationship between ElDorado, a subsidiary of REV Group, and Access, the paratransit service provided by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), remains as durable as the vehicles which have sustained it.
SORTA, which is the tax-supported independent political subdivision of Ohio, operates Cincinnati Metro, the city bus system for Cincinnati, OH, which consists of fixed-route bus service, as well as Access, the city’s service for individuals whose disabilities prevent their riding Metro.
Access serves close to 2,700 eligible riders, and provided around 222,000 rides in 2016. All of this was accomplished with a compact fleet of 58 buses – 51 of which are ElDorado branded.
Whitworth Bus Sales of Dayton, OH, was a contracted dealer for the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) in 1994 – a contract that the company has held continuously since 1985.
“The service, which is now branded Access, was looking to ‘piggyback’ on the ODOT contract in order to fill its fleet,” says Kevin Whitworth, president and CEO of Whitworth Bus Sales. “They came to us in search of good, reliable buses for that purpose.”
Whitworth connected Access with ElDorado, a manufacturer of light- and medium-duty midsize commercial buses for transit, paratransit, airport and other markets. The first eight vehicles ElDorado built for Access were the 22-foot Aerotech 220.
Whitworth says that Access saw at that time that the space needed on board vehicles, for both wheelchairs and passengers, was growing.
“Access was one of the first customers that saw the interior and said, ‘We need more room,’” Whitworth says. “They opted to expand the interior and almost immediately went with a modified 24-foot vehicle.”
“Access has always been big on customizing the vehicles we use for our needs,” says Lisa Aulick, director of accessible services for Access. “Our relationship with ElDorado through Whitworth Bus Sales has grown so that every year we work directly with their factory representatives to make sure the vehicles are best suiting our needs. Sometimes, we even get to be the ones pioneering new decisions”
For example, Access once requested bright-style interior lights for buses traveling at night. The extra illumination ended up being a huge hit with nighttime passengers.
Similarly, interior modifications have been accepted just as easily by ElDorado.
“Riding in cutaway buses can be a very noisy experience,” Aulick says. “Because we have direct contact with the manufacturer, we’ve been able to develop pouch pockets to hold straps, seat belts, and extra securement straps, and that alone helps to reduce interior noise.”
Originally, Access officials had identified the ElDorado vehicles as potential five-year investments – but the vehicles eventually began amassing hundreds of thousands of miles driven while still maintaining a quality structure. Whitworth and Access both attribute this to top-quality engineering, and ElDorado’s steel reinforced patented fiberglass “honeycomb” composite.
Above all else, the steel reinforced fiberglass composite is durable.
“One of the most important aspects of the Aerotech vehicles’ fiberglass honeycomb composite is that it’s a non-corrosive body,” says Darrin Hendrixson, ElDorado Brand Manager. “It holds up extremely well in harsher conditions, such as in southwest Ohio, with harsher climates in the winter and salt on the road.”
The methods used in constructing this steel reinforced composite body are completely different than the rest of the mid-sized vehicle marketplace. The pieces actually come out of fiberglass molds, which ElDorado pieces together into a front cap, sidewalls, a rear cap, and a roof structure. ElDorado ties all of these pieces together, essentially creating a uni-body vehicle.
“When we’re done with it, it’s one piece,” Hendrixson says. “It’s extremely strong. It has a gel-coated exterior that is highly maintainable, and you can hit this vehicle with a buffer years after you’ve bought it to make it look brand-new. It’s extremely forgiving and thrives in the harshest of conditions.”
The steel-reinforced composite body essentially has twice the strength-to-weight ratio of an all-steel frame structure found in steel buses (like yellow school buses). When the Aerotech went through rollover and impact testing, it exceeded the criteria set in place for steel school buses.
“When school bus manufacturers would undergo this testing, the school bus body would immediately go to the scrap yard – because it would total the vehicle,” Whitworth says. “It would destroy the integrity of the vehicle. When the ElDorado vehicle went through the same test, they actually resold it – because the honeycomb construction has a memory that will rebound”.
“One of the highlights of a fiberglass product is its ability to absorb shock of an impact and localize it to the area where the impact occurs,” Hendrixson adds. “In a steel-frame bus, you get a lot of radiation from that impact throughout the frame of the vehicle, where you see a lot of bent frames and exterior sidewall damage. Most of the time with our product, when needed, we simply remove the piece of damaged fiberglass and reattach a new piece in its place. It’s very forgiving, and it’s extremely strong.”
Access riders love the ElDorado buses, and they’ve responded especially well to customization initiated by the agency and OEM. Aulick recalls one passenger who indicated that, because of her stature, she was having a hard time seeing out the vehicle’s windows when seated.
“While you’re standing up, it seems like you have a good viewpoint – but when you’re seated, it’s not as easy to see outside and where you’re going,” she says. “It was harder for passengers to see upcoming stops. Working with ElDorado, we made alterations to our specifications which fixed the issue and really served our passengers.”
Furthermore, the insulated cabin and honeycomb fiberglass composite contribute to a much quieter ride for passengers.
Aesthetically, Aulick says passengers are very receptive to the buses’ sharp look, also customized as a collaboration between ElDorado and Access. The vehicles’ blackout windows, combined with the program’s signature logo, make for a striking image on the streets of Cincinnati.
“The starburst logo is just eye popping, and certainly can’t be confused with other buses or smaller agency buses that might be around town,” Aulick says. “It’s a very clean and pretty look. It’s fresh, and the logo almost implies a wheel in motion.”
The program’s maintenance staff includes some of the biggest proponents of the ElDorado buses. The interior and exterior construction materials are easy to keep clean, and Aulick says upkeep is much easier than other bus models.
“I’ll often hear comments from maintenance staff that these buses always look ‘assembly-line new,’” she says.
One of the biggest benefits to the agency is cost savings attributable to the vehicle’s unique fiberglass composite. The high-quality construction materials from ElDorado allow for hard use by the agency and extended life for parts or or componentry.
Joe Routt, former maintenance manager for MV Transportation, soon realized the ElDorado honeycomb body, was going to far outlast the chassis. They initiated a re-power program in order to get the best bang for the dollar.
“Our goal was 300,000 miles out of the original drive train, with the re-power to get an additional 150,000 to 200,000 miles,” Routt says. “It was not unusual to see a half million miles prior to disposing the vehicles.”
“The cabin area will probably outlive all of us just because of the composite materials,” she says. “And we get so much usable life out of the seats and the flooring. We do pay an upgrade for the nice seats, but it’s because we keep them in service for as long as we do. As someone who must be diligent with taxpayers’ money, I can appreciate that we’re getting the best ‘bang for our buck’ that way.”
Carrying the relationship forward
Thanks to the familiarity and knowledge shared between Access, Whitworth Bus Sales and ElDorado, their long relationship has been consistently pleasant.
“Our relationship with our dealer and manufacturer makes training, operations and maintenance so much easier than normal,” Aulick says. “Also, our customers always know to expect a consistent, safe, quality ride. I don’t see that changing and I see that relationship lasting well into the future.”
“This relationship will continue to flourish,” Hendrixson says. “That’s because of the day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground work that Kevin Whitworth does with every one of his customers, backed by a very robust customer service and warranty program that we offer through the REV Group here at ElDorado. This relationship will keep growing.”
About REV Group
REV Group is a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of specialty vehicles and related aftermarket parts and services. They serve a diversified customer base primarily in the United States through three segments: Fire and Emergency, Commercial and Recreation. REV provides customized vehicle solutions for applications including: essential needs (ambulances, fire apparatus, school buses, mobility vans and municipal transit buses), industrial and commercial (terminal trucks, cut-away buses and street sweepers) and consumer leisure (recreational vehicles (“RVs”) and luxury buses). REV’s brand portfolio consists of 27 well-established principal vehicle brands including many of the most recognizable names within our served markets. Several of REV’s brands pioneered their specialty vehicle product categories and date back more than 50 years.