Five federally-funded school buses have been sitting idle for many years now due to legal and technical issues.
In an interview with acting Pupil Transportation manager Jack Diaz during the preparation for the new school year, he said they continue to work with the vendor to fix this longstanding problem.
Before the creation of the Commonwealth Office of Transportation Authority, the CNMI Public School System directly received funds from the Federal Transportation Administration to procure school buses and vans for public schools.
Saipan Tribune learned that FTA funds were used to buy these five 66-seater Navistar buses. It was learned that the federal arm’s General Services Administration procured the buses from a vendor identified as Midpac Far East Guam. After only a year of use, the buses broke down and have not been in use since then.
“Those five buses were purchased awhile back (before I came) and have some issues. They actually ran for one year and broke down due to manufacture defects,” said Diaz.
Of the five, three are on Saipan, one is on Rota, and one is on Tinian.
When asked how long these buses have been broken, Diaz said: “They’ve been sitting there for the longest time because of legal and technical issues…maybe five to six years now.”
Diaz said that one of the issues is whether the defects were caused by operator error or are manufacturing defects.
“What they’re telling us is that [the defect] is operator-error but how could you have an operator error when all five buses purchased from them have the same problems?” asked Diaz.
Diaz said the vendor brought experts to Tinian and Rota to assess the problem some years ago and he plans to bring the same experts to Saipan to look at the buses.
It was found out during the previous assessment that the spare parts needed to fix the problem are already obsolete, posing another concern.
“I am thinking if we can bring them back [experts from Midpac Far East Guam] to Saipan and work on one of the buses, we will know exactly what to do with the other buses,” said Diaz.
Besides the five buses with “manufacturing defects,” PSS has two other 66-seater buses undergoing minor repairs, Diaz said.
He said that PSS has more than enough number of buses this school year, with 30 buses and special education vans for three islands. All these buses and vans are considered “new” and not one is more than 10 years old.
Diaz said they also have three standby/backup 66-seater school buses for emergency cases.
When asked if PSS needs more buses at this time, Diaz said: “Pretty soon we are. I am thinking after two years because of our proximity to the ocean.”
According to Diaz, the lifespan of a bus in the U.S. mainland is 12 years. On Saipan, he projects that this could be lower than 10 years.
PSS’ future need for school buses now depend on COTA, which is the direct authority that handles FTA funds for the CNMI, including for public schools.