Photos: Chris Hinkle
The harsh climate and ever-changing terrain of southern Arizona throw a little bit of everything at the school buses that serve Marana Unified School District—and not much of it is easy.
Routes cover 550 square miles between the Silver Bell and Tortolita mountain ranges northwest of Tucson, and include urban areas snarled with stop-and-go traffic, wide-open highways, dusty rural farmland and twisting desert roads. Temperatures range from freezing in the winter to upwards of 105 degrees during the dog days of summer.
“The geographic area here in Marana is pretty unique,” says technician Matt Fredrick, sitting behind the wheel of one of the district’s new CE Series buses. We’re getting a look at this demanding environment firsthand, riding shotgun as he snakes through the hills of Saguaro National Park. Dotting the landscape are the tall native cacti that give the area its name. Today, under an impossibly blue sky, it’s a beautiful ride. But when the rainy season hits, sheets of water transform this scenic byway into white-knuckle territory.
“This is a pretty spirited stretch of road,” Fredrick deadpans, pointing out a yellow sign that reads Do Not Enter When Flooded. “Our buses need to be versatile. They have to handle every extreme.”
Desert conditions like those found here can wreak havoc on an aging fleet, which is what this proud school district had just a few short years ago. Then a 2010 bond election brought a rare opportunity: The transportation department received $12 million to upgrade and modernize the bulk of its equipment.
After extensive due diligence, including running demo buses from every major bus manufacturer in North America, the district chose IC Bus. According to garage manager Robert Hobbs, who spearheaded the order, IC Bus’ CE Series vehicles stood head and shoulders above the competition as the highest-quality, most capable vehicles to meet Marana’s many challenges.
“We had to be very careful with our purchase. It was vital that we got the very best products for the district,” Hobbs says. “Half of our routes are through what could be considered off-road situations. And some previous brand buses, just couldn't deal with the harsh environment that we have here.”
Hobbs is happy to report that past issues have been all but eliminated with the help of the ultra-strong CE Series chassis.“IC Bus applies their experience on the truck side over to the bus side, and the result has been an absolutely indestructible combination for us.”
GOING THE DISTANCE
After replacing 80% of its old equipment with newer vehicles, Marana now boasts one of the youngest fleets in its region. Of its 132 buses, 120 are IC Bus products, and 80 are 2012 model year or newer. Among the bells and whistles are air-conditioning on every new bus and ergonomically designed air ride seats to help their 100-plus drivers stay fresh during their routes.
“Our drivers test-drove several types of buses, and they really liked IC Bus for the ride and the turning radius,” notes transportation director Alisha Meza. “We took that into consideration when making the purchase.”
Today, this equipment is helping the school district better serve a community that is expanding—especially in its mostly rural areas. “Some of our students have to ride up to an hour a day back and forth from school,” says Meza, standing in front of a wall-size map outside her department’s offices. “It feels good to know we have safe, reliable buses that can serve all of our students, wherever they happen to be.
“Most of us who work for the district also live in the community,” she adds. “Some of these buses are carrying our own children, and our friends’ and neighbors’ children. So the safety of the school buses is very personal for us.”
Another major consideration that stacked the deck in favor of IC Bus: ease of maintenance. The design of the CE Series buses allowed for quick learning for Marana’s nine-person garage staff. Among the most helpful is a flip-front hood that provides fast engine access.
“It makes it incredibly easy, because you can open the hood one-handed and you have access to everything,” says Fredrick, demonstrating in one of the garage’s five service bays. “You’re not crawling around in or under the vehicle to check multiple things. You can find issues before they become major problems out on the road.”
Fredrick, who has a degree in auto-motive and diesel technology, has been particularly impressed by the innovative technology built into IC Bus’ latest products.
“I think they’ve done an amazing job integrating technology, and making it so the driver can relate to it,” he says. “From a maintenance standpoint, the computer programs are very easy for us to plug into and figure out what’s going on. The downtime is minimized, and we can just keep them rolling.”
“With these IC Bus products, we’re turning wrenches a lot less, that’s for sure,” he says. “They’ve made my job very easy.”
And Marana’s transition to its new equipment was made even more seam-less by the efforts of its dealer, RWC International in Tucson, which supplied comprehensive training for its technicians along with stellar service every step of the way. “They’ve been an invaluable tool for the district,” Hobbs notes. “They bend over backward for us, and that was a huge part of our decision to go with IC Bus.”
“When you’re shopping for a school bus, the most important thing you’re looking for is quality,” says Hobbs. “The safety is based on the quality of the vehicle. And the buses have been exceptional. Some have 50,000 miles on them already, and the quality doesn’t diminish with age.”
At the end of our ride-along, I get a true feel for the tough job Marana’s buses perform. We bounce for a quarter mile through one of the rural residential neighborhoods where the district provides door-to-door service for its students with special needs. Peering out at the modest homes as we go by, I’m reminded that if the district’s buses can’t make it out here, these kids can’t get to school. Plain and simple. It’s a responsibility the folks who work in the Marana Unified School District don’t take lightly. And at the end of the day, when I ask Hobbs what it feels like to know he has a fleet of nearly indomitable buses running routes for him, he lets out a sigh of relief.
“It takes a huge burden off you,” he says. “I’m not worried about getting calls about buses breaking down. I’ve gotten exceptional reliability out of all my IC Buses. I definitely sleep easier knowing I have my new fleet running.”