Management & Operations

The Death of a Radical Idea

Posted on April 1, 2005 by Cliff Henke

It had become a name synonymous with new technology and new hope for achieving a variety of public policy goals widely expressed in public transportation. It was considered at the same time a vindication of an expensive federal research effort and a threat to decades of federal support for a U.S. manufacturing industry. In the end, the rhetoric exceeded reality. The industry was unwilling to pay so much for an unproven payback. Once again in public transportation, too few pushed their champion into the arena of the marketplace with too little support, ultimately making it the latest symbol of what ails the transit vehicle manufacturing supply chain, a complex industry comprising often disparate segments that is not high enough on the policy radar screen, but if left there could put the nation at a greater economic and security vulnerability. Its name is CompoBus. This article is both requiem for all the above as well as a post-mortem on why a high-profile product development project had to die. Its short life raises serious questions about whether procurement policies and manufacturing practices are stifling the very innovation that agencies and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) say the industry needs. CompoBus is thus not simply a shorthand for what might ail not only bus building and buying, but the marketplace for other public transportation goods and services needed by the country. Program genesis and goals
Many have called the CompoBus the “commercial heir to the Advanced Technology Transit Bus,” a reference to the $60 million FTA program to design a next-generation bus “from a clean sheet of paper.” However, no manufacturer ever stepped forward to build the ATTB design; in fact, few other than North American Bus Industries (NABI) paid the processing fee to acquire all the project documents in the public domain. NABI saw the potential of the lightweight structure, which was a major ATTB project objective. Company officials initially believed that it could take as many as 7,000 pounds out of the curb weight of a transit bus, which had climbed in some cases well past 30,000 pounds with lifts or ramps for wheelchair passengers, alternative fuel systems such as compressed natural gas and the growing variety of advanced electronic components being specified by transit agencies. This was a less ambitious and therefore more reasonable corporate objective than the original ATTB target, which was to bring bus curb weight below 20,000 pounds. After an extensive search of a variety of advanced composite techniques, ATTB project leaders settled on a technology called Seaman Composite Resin Infused Molding Process (SCRIMP), a patented technology developed by TPI Composites of Warren, R.I., which primarily manufactured sailing boats and yachts. TPI had also developed the SCRIMP technique to fabricate high-strength, lightweight, high-quality structures for such applications as nosecones of high-speed trains, peoplemover car bodies, windmill blades and electric cars. Moreover, SCRIMP was considerably less expensive than other structures that the ATTB project team had investigated from defense, aerospace and other high-technology industries. Urged by former FTA Technology Director Ron Kangas, NABI executives made a call on TPI in 1998 as the ATTB program was nearing completion. Soon thereafter, NABI secured an exclusive worldwide licensing agreement with TPI for SCRIMP technology applied to heavy-duty bus manufacturing. NABI began manufacturing its first prototype, a virtually exact composite version of its 40-foot steel low-floor model, in fall 1998. The curb weight of this new model, with lighter seats, windows and lighter of two engines in the 9-liter class, was 22,222 pounds. The new bus made its debut at the International Union of Public Transport City Transport Expo in Toronto in May 1999 to a great deal of industry fanfare. Then-FTA Administrator Gordon Linton heaped praise on the company’s boldness. Similar acclaim greeted the new bus at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) International Public Transit Expo in Orlando later that year. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced that it would issue a change order in its contract with NABI for 40-foot buses so that the final 20 would be built with this new structure. (It was able to do so because once it had learned of NABI’s new model, it changed the specification language of a procurement that year to ensure that composite structure could be included should NABI become the winner of the bid.) Nearly two years of delay transpired, however, as TPI and NABI became entangled beginning in 2000 in a legal fight over how much NABI would pay TPI to produce the composite body-chassis “shells” for the new model. For a time, it looked as though the project would become a fatal casualty of threatened litigation. Finally, in the summer of 2001, the two companies settled their differences out of court, and NABI ramped up sales and marketing efforts to make up for lost ground. Meanwhile, the company announced that it had begun to develop a new model of CompoBus, this time on a longer wheelbase. Earl Zwaggerman, then chief of procurement at the City of Phoenix, was looking for a higher-capacity vehicle for what would later become Rapid, Phoenix’s premium suburban express bus rapid transit (BRT) service. At the time, natural gas engines for articulated buses did not exist. A composite vehicle, because of its lighter-weight structure, could be stretched to 45 feet for two more rows of seating yet stay on two axles with roughly the same curb weight as a conventional 40-footer, key to staying with natural gas. The city took the risk with NABI and quietly encouraged the company to begin development of the new product. It also would have a dramatic new styling. “I wanted our new model to be one that the mayor would be proud of, not just the transit authority,” said Andy Racz, CEO of NABI Rt. in Budapest at the time. The new Model 45C-LFW would be designed to accommodate 15% more passengers than a traditional 40-footer, more than making up for the trend of seats lost when the industry began to purchase stepped low-floor buses in the 1990s. Racz’s comments and the extra capacity were prescient because they dovetailed with BRT, an important trend in bus service emerging throughout the world. BRT has led many service planners and the FTA to believe that distinctive, higher-capacity vehicles are necessary to make the new mode work, particularly since other, rail-based concepts were inherently distinctive from the stigma of traditional bus service. Changed corporate direction
Once BRT began to capture the industry’s imagination, it captured NABI’s corporate direction, and the CompoBus was chosen as the chief strategic weapon. NABI appointed a new U.S. president, Patrick Rona, son of the founding chairman, Peter Rona. The younger Rona seemed even more enamored of the project than his father, and set out to promote it with an expensive advertising and publicity campaign titled “What Transportation Solutions Are Made Of.” The campaign garnered an APTA AdWheel Grand Award in 2004. Rona tried to enlist government support for the project as well. He invited Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the powerful Senate Banking Committee; the CEOs of the two primary customers of the 45-foot CompoBus — the City of Phoenix and the MTA; and other dignitaries to a widely publicized “celebration of innovation” at the company’s Anniston, Ala., headquarters in December 2003. Rona also tried to enlist the help of the FTA in two important, unorthodox ways. First, he ordered the development of a proposal to the agency for a guaranteed pool procurement of 800 CompoBuses in various lengths, which would be funded by FTA research money as well as formula and other grant funds to the participating cities. The idea would take advantage of the little-known Joint Partnership Program created in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. The proposal never went further, partly because it was beyond the scope of the program to “guarantee” bus purchases as well as beyond the modest research budget actually controlled by the FTA (as much as 90% of research funds in some years are earmarked by Congress for specific projects, according to agency estimates). The second strategy was at least partially successful. In early 2002, the company applied to the FTA for a waiver of Buy America regulations for content and final assembly for 10 years, in order to develop the technology. The company argued that such a waiver would achieve public interest goals, namely increased ridership, lower vehicle weights which support advanced propulsion development and greater safety because of a higher crash resistance. NABI also argued that the waivers would support a key U.S. trading partner in eastern Europe that only a decade ago had thrown off the yoke of Soviet domination. The FTA approved the waiver in March of that year, but for only two years, not the 10 originally sought, subject to renewal and review. “The FTA decisions recognize the success of a four-year product development program that cost more than $10 million,” Racz said upon learning of the decision. Buy America waiver
The decision set off a firestorm of protest in the industry. It became further politicized by another controversial FTA decision, which granted a waiver to a European fare collection manufacturer. The CompoBus and fare collection decisions became symbols of the agency’s steady relaxation of Buy America enforcement. A coalition of nearly 30 companies concerned about these decisions was formed later that year, calling itself the U.S. Transit Suppliers Coalition. The group’s mission statement said it was committed to “preserving the spirit and intent of the Buy America” provisions. “Despite Buy America’s obvious value, it has become clear to many observers that Buy America as currently administered has been increasingly misinterpreted, exploited and manipulated to the detriment of U.S. workers and the economy,” the coalition said in a statement released in 2003. FTA Administrator Jenna Dorn heard the industry concerns loud and clear. She released a Dear Colleague letter in June 2002, reaffirming her agency’s commitment to enforcing the provisions. In addition, the agency began a policy of posting waiver requests for a short period of industry comment prior to announcing its determinations on such applications. Meanwhile, the U.S. Transit Suppliers Coalition stepped up its pressure on Congress to act. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kirkpatrick took up the coalition’s cause and introduced legislation to subject waivers to more formal notice-and-comment rulemaking required of revised or new regulations. Although the law did not pass, a similar version did in the Fiscal Year 2004 House Appropriations bill before it was taken out in the final version that reached President Bush’s desk. The Senate, however, instructed the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General to conduct a study of Buy America’s impact on job preservation and promoting the viability of the domestic supplier industry, which became part of the law’s final conference report. Part 2 will discuss the challenges that led to the demise of the CompoBus. It will appear in the June 2005 issue. Cliff Henke is former editor/associate publisher of METRO.

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