The city’s ancient fleet of garbage trucks is putting at risk not only the lives of the drivers and crews who operate them, but everyone they drive past, according to the men and women who drive them and the mechanics who struggle to keep them on the road.
Almost 80 percent of the fleet is well over the recommended age for such trucks, seven years, and many are more than twice that old. Replacing the fleet may involve raising the city’s garbage fee, suggested Public Works Director Pat Biegler, who addressed Columbus Council Tuesday night, along with several of her mechanics and drivers.
“We have 52 trucks that have reached pretty much critical mass, out of the 66 we need,” Biegler said. “We are approaching a point where we are going to have insufficient trucks to pick up yard waste, recycling and potentially even trash, within the next couple of years, if we don’t make a move forward in some way.”
Biegler said the situation is more serious than just missing a few garbage routes. It could be a matter of life and death.
“The trucks are dangerous. If things start going wrong with metal fatigue and other problems, you’ve got a 56,000 pound vehicle out there,” Biegler said. “If the steering column snaps, that becomes a significant concern. I’ll tell you, it’s one of the things that keeps me awake at night, wondering about what might happen out there. We’ve been very lucky so far, but we need to take that very seriously.”
Tony Perry, lead mechanic, or technician as they are known now, works on trucks and supervises other technicians.
“I’ve been with Public Works since 1987, and in my 29 years, I have never seen our fleet in such dire condition, and it’s not because of maintenance, it’s because of age,” said. “On a daily basis, I send trucks to a contracted metal fabricator to have repairs done on stress cracks, cross members and body mounts. We do not have the materials to manufacture parts in-house.”
Biegler said she asked Perry and the other technicians for their assessment of the fleet.
“They said we have 18 trucks that they do not believe will last another year and a half. If we want to take that a little further. We have another 16 trucks that they do not believe will go beyond FY 18,”’ Biegler said. “If we look at 66 trucks available and we lose 18 of them in the next year, we’re down to 48 trucks. If we take it one year further without making an investment in the trucks, we’re looking at having 32 trucks left. Just to pick up trash requires 26, so at that point, we’re approaching pretty much complete failure.”
Some of those who drive the $250,000 trucks daily told a different side of the same story.
Josh Hunt, a supervisor and former driver, said he lived through one of the scenarios Biegler had earlier mentioned.
“Pat made mention of a steering column breaking. I was that truck driver,” Hunt said. “The steering column broke and I collided with a parked vehicle, and it caused considerable damage, not only to the city truck, but to the parked car.
“At the time that I hit that truck, I had two inmates on my truck. If I had been going any faster, we’d be dealing with another injury claim. And if that truck had been oncoming, we could have had a serious head-on collision.”
Hunt has since been promoted to a supervisory role, but he’s uncomfortable sending the people he supervises into the aging fleet of trucks.
“I find myself every day having to put my co-workers into trucks that aren’t safe to drive. They really are unsafe,” Hunt said.
Bonnie Rothwell, another driver, has been working with Public Works for about 11 years. She, too, doesn’t feel like some of the trucks are safe to drive.
“My co-workers and I are valuable and these trucks are dangerous. I’m just asking council to value us,” Rothwell said. “I’m a mom and an aunt and a sister, I’m a cousin and I’m a grandmother. You have to value us, your workers. I don’t feel like you value me as a worker, a woman, a mother, a cousin, a sister.
As you’re your constituent, I am requesting that you heed everything you hear tonight from me and my co-workers, and know that we need for you to help us get new trucks so we can do our jobs well.”
Kenneth Johnson has been in sanitation for nine years. Recently, he was driving toward the landfill, getting onto the J.R. Allen Parkway.
“I felt the truck start shaking as soon as I got onto the highway,” Johnson recalled. “My left front tire, lug nuts, rim, everything attached, just broke off. It took off in the left lane, across the median and continued on down to Moon Road. It didn’t hit anything, but at that rate of speed, it could have easily killed anybody it hit.”
Perry estimated that the tire and rim and other parts that bounded down the highway weighed about 350 pounds.
Biegler then told council that, in the absence of being able to devote more funding for fleet replacement, higher garbage fees might be inevitable.
“When I’ve been looking at sources of funds, suggestions I could make to you, I can’t come up with anything else but a fee increase,” Biegler said.
Biegler said increasing the garbage fee from the current $15 a month to $21 a month would take care of the city’s ancient fleet, but would not address fiscal issues at the landfill.
Biegler said her department could survive with a $2 a month increase, because once the worst vehicles begin to be replaced, the city will start seeing huge savings on maintenance and fuel costs, which could be reinvested back into further fleet replacement.
Councilors asked several questions, but did not take any action on Biegler’s presentation.
“I just want to apologize for allowing you get into those trucks,” Councilor Skip Henderson said. “Pat does a great job coming in and telling us we need new trucks. But I’ll be honest with you, this is the first time I’ve seen the photographs and heard the stories of drivers in dangerous situations.
“I will promise you, I don’t know how, but we’re going to have to address this. It could result in cuts elsewhere, but this has got to be our priority.”