BWAT test drives low-floors by Champion Bus

Blue Water Area Transit (BWAT) of Port Huron, Michigan, serves an average monthly ridership of over 109,000, providing regularly scheduled service to the City of Port Huron and Fort Gratiot Township as well as dial-a-ride service in Fort Gratiot, Burtchville and Port Huron Townships and the City of Marysville. Operated by the Blue Water Area Transportation Commission, BWAT covers a 721 square-mile service area in St. Clair County. The Commission also provides contracted service operated by agencies like the ARC, The Council on Aging, Community Mental Health and the YMCA, transporting their clients to various programs throughout the county. This contracted service averages over 23,000 transportation trips per month.

Because of BWAT’s small urban nature, its extensive on-demand services and its numerous public-private partnerships, vehicle and facility accessibility has always been a key concern. The agency has an accessible fleet and began employing low-floor buses 22 years ago.

“The low-floor is a vehicle type which Blue Water Area Transit will never abandon,” says Dave Frasier, director of procurement at BWAT. “Individuals using wheelchairs or other devices are such an important part of our ridership that we consider them an absolute necessity.”

As part of the agency’s long-term equipment replacement plan, which replaces vehicles on scheduled intervals based on funding availabilities, Frasier was tasked with procuring new low-floor cutaway buses in August 2016. In addition to compressed natural gas (CNG) propulsion, BWAT’s request for proposals had numerous other requirements:

“Our buses need all of the necessary equipment for fixed-route and paratransit service in a small urban area,” Frasier says. “That includes easy on-off access with an entryway less than 7 inches above ground level; a deployable ramp for wheelchair access; installed fareboxes, destination and identification signage; passenger counting; and multiple wheelchair positions with maximized seating capacity for up to 14 passengers.”

Enter Champion Bus

The competitive bid process saw Steve Bolin, commercial products manager at Hoekstra Transportation, submit a bid on behalf of his client the REV Group and its Champion Bus brand. That bid was among three that BWAT began seriously considering in the fall of 2016.

Hoekstra Transportation is celebrating its 90th year in business this year. The fourth-generation family owned truck body, RV and equipment dealership expanded to a full-service school bus dealership and then once again into commercial buses in 1980. Its relationship with the company that is now REV began that same year.

The bid from Hoekstra and Champion Bus ultimately fulfilled all the agency’s requirements at the lowest cost, and BWAT submitted a notice of intent to order in March 2017.

The contract with Champion allows for up to 65 delivered vehicles through 2023. BWAT has already officially ordered 17 buses, with more to come as soon as the agency can confirm that a prototype meets its specifications.

The buses for BWAT by Champion have a few notable features which make them unique.

Champion says it is the first manufacturer to mount rooftop CNG tanks to a low-floor cutaway bus and pass Altoona testing requirements.

“Roof-mounted tanks allow BWAT to free up space in the passenger compartment, allowing for seating throughout the entire bus as well as a rear doorway,” says Ryan Lamb, regional sales manager at REV Group.

Furthermore, the bus deployed to BWAT is the first cutaway bus to pass Altoona testing without any structural failures relating to the 1,200 pounds of roof-mounted CNG tanks. Lamb says that is a testament to the rigidity of the unique Champion Bus structure.

“Champion worked with me every step of the way through their Altoona test procedure, keeping BWAT updated as much as possible with spreadsheets and breakdowns of in-progress testing,” Frasier says. “They were totally transparent on their Altoona test, which I found very refreshing.

BWAT had previous issues with floor rot on some of its older low-floor vehicles, which Fraiser made Champion and Hoekstra aware of. As a result, the new buses from Champion feature “space-age” composite flooring which the manufacturer says will forever ensure against rotting issues. In addition, the new floors are lighter than a marine-grade plywood – allowing for weight savings for increased passenger capacity.

“The experience with the management team at BWAT has been nothing short of excellent,” Bolin adds. “The team comprising of maintenance, procurement and front office officials, led by Dave Frasier and Lisa Delong, are true professionals with exacting standards. The partnership between Hoekstra, Champion and BWAT combined with patience and professionalism has allowed the process to continue delivering an excellent product and customer experience.”

Testing the pilot

Frasier says that BWAT had a wonderful experience with its pilot bus from Champion, experiencing only two routine service calls during its 60-day trial. Drivers said the ride was exceptional through country and city roads, as well as a mix of road conditions. The maintenance team, Frasier says, was impressed with the vehicle’s minimal maintenance requirements during that period. After a few requested changes, mostly cosmetic, to the pilot vehicle, BWAT placed its order.

“It’s been a lengthy process, but so very rewarding because both Champion and BWAT are working hard to ensure we have the best possible low-floor vehicle for our passengers,” Frasier says.

“I think riders will be very happy with the advanced features of the vehicle, such as lower entry-step heights, better ramp angles, wider buses and longer interiors,” Lamb says. “It will represent a more inviting and accessible ride for BWAT’s customers.”

The path ahead

BWAT’s new low-floor buses by Champion are built for the agency’s unique environment for cutaways. Frasier says the agency’s buses must be set up for operation in both rural and urban environments, splitting time between each.

“Our mission at BWAT is to serve the people that need us, as well as those who don’t necessarily need us,” Frasier says. “That mission is only accomplished with new vehicles in good working condition. It can be tough to find a bus that can do all we ask of it, in a comfortable seven-year cycle – but I believe we’ve found that bus with Champion.”