John Needham stands beside the “skip truck” in the far bay of the Department of Public Works garage. He estimates the city spent $1,000 in parts in the last week to get the truck back on the road. It needed brakes, tires and an assortment of other items.
Yet nothing looks new about the “skip truck.” Rust breaks out across its cab and bed. Metal road signs have been used to patch the cab flooring and the driver’s seat is held together with duct tape.
Needham, who heads the department’s eight-man mechanics division, thinks the $1,000 could be a poor investment.
“It could blow the engine next week,” he says. At best he estimates the city could get $1,500 for the vehicle at the “junk sale.” Needham said the city could buy a cab and chassis and put a new skip truck on the road for $35,000.
The truck is a 1997 GMC. It’s the oldest truck in the fleet of sanitation and recycling trucks. But spending $35,000 on a truck is not going to happen.
First, the sanitation division needs the truck now and going out for bid and gaining Council approval when the truck is not budgeted would take months. The city can’t wait. The skip truck is deployed when sanitation trucks can’t empty a roadside bin because it is blocked by a parked vehicle or for some other reason had been missed during the regular collection. Having the automated truck return to make the collection would interrupt the cycle and could cause more problems down the line.
Second, DPW director Richard Crenca finds a new skip truck secondary to a far greater problem – the loss of a sanitation truck, which has forced the department to use all 14 trucks every day of the week. He doesn’t have a reserve truck. That means when there is a breakdown, which happens twice a day on average, someone has to double up and cover more than their route. That’s more time on the road and leads to overtime costs. Already, said Crenca, he has overspent his $65,000 overtime budget by $3,200 and he’s just in the seventh month of the fiscal year.
When the city lost its reserve truck to a blown engine, Crenca went out for bid for a new sanitation truck in August. He appeared before the Council Finance Committee, but chairman Ed Ladouceur delayed action. Last week, he didn’t see approving a lease-purchase for a new truck and suggested the DPW “could do more with less.” He suggested buying a new engine for the 2008 truck, creating a second shift maintenance crew and, if necessary, going to every other week collections.
Needham put the cost of a new engine at $27,000 but said the truck needs more than that. He put the overall costs of returning the truck to the road at more than $80,000. In his opinion, that would extend the truck’s life by two years. It’s a waste of money.
The fleet isn’t getting any younger and, unless there is a commitment to replacing trucks on a regular schedule, the city will be faced with having to replace many of them at one time at a substantial cost, says Mayor Scott Avedisian.
“The fleet needs to be replaced on a constantly moving schedule,” said Crenca.
The trucks cost an average of $267,000 each.
Crenca thinks the city could get by with two new trucks in the next fiscal year. Needham would like to see three.
On average, explained sanitation supervisor Chris Beneduce, each sanitation and recycling trucks makes between 900 and 1,100 pickups per day. It’s not the miles that put the wear on the trucks. Rather, it is the stopping and starting and the constant lifting of the arm to dump trash or recyclables. The oldest sanitation truck in the fleet is a 2008 Mack. It has 106,000 miles on the odometer and 15,000 hours of operation. Two trucks are 2010s; three are 2013; four are 2014 and four are 2016. As would be expected, the older the truck the more visits it has made to the shop for repairs.
Needham pulls the reports from a file. One of the 2014 trucks has had two rear end replacements at a cost of $6,000 each in addition to 16 visits to the shop other than regular maintenance, such as an oil and change of filters, that cost $350 in materials only. This compares to one of the 2010 trucks with 75 visits to the shop for everything from broken hydraulic lines to brakes.
One truck is an exception with comparatively fewer stops at the garage.
“The driver makes a big difference,” said Needham, adding that he wishes all drivers were like this one.
Even the newest of the trucks have problems. Needham said one of the 2016 trucks, which is under warranty, was back at Peterbilt for axel work. He didn’t expect it would be back in service for at least a week and a half. That leaves 13 trucks, assuming no breakdowns, to cover seven routes with sanitation and recycling pickups.
“It’s a game of chess,” says Beneduce. He said many of his crew work through their breaks and lunch to get the job done. He said they are not looking to make overtime.
But circumstances play out otherwise. It takes 30 minutes to drive to the landfill in Johnston and there can be waits of an hour and a half before a truck can dump its load. Those delays are expected to be reduced with the opening of additional areas at the landfill.
Whatever it takes, Beneduce said he’s committed to “getting the garbage off the street by the end of the day.” He doesn’t want to let it sit until the following day, although it came close to that earlier this year when four trucks were down.
Neither Crenca nor Needham see dividing mechanics into two shifts as practical. Crenca points out a second shift would require a change in the contract apart from another supervisor.
“You can’t just say, ‘you guys are going to work from 3 to 11,’” he said. “So where would I save money?” he asks.
Needham imagines issues between crews if a mechanic has to pick up where another left off.
Fewer collections don’t offer a solution because trucks would be picking up twice the volume, thereby requiring more runs to the landfill and even longer days, says Beneduce.
As Needham sees it, the answer is scheduled preventive maintenance and a program of using older trucks as reserves and replacing them with new trucks.
Without a program to retire old trucks, “it’s at the point where you’re taking good money and throwing it away,” he said.