Metrobus opens depot for tour

General manager hopes new premises will be ready by August

Published on June 22, 2013

The penthouse in the new Metrobus depot on Messenger Drive is impressive.

It's all the buzz at the 116,000-square-foot building off Kelsey Drive behind Wal-Mart.

Things are freshly painted and impeccably decorated, and there's that new-building smell.

What seems to be missing from the penthouse is a bar, oversized couches, fluffy pillows and breathtaking view.

In its place are control panels, huge funnels, metal boxes and mechanical instrumentation that will help drive the public transit company towards its goal of being a leader in green technology.

During an exclusive technical tour for The Telegram Wednesday, Metrobus general manager Judy Powell talks about the decision more than three years ago to trade the old depot on Freshwater Road in St. John's for a building that is kinder to the environment and will enhance working conditions for its employees.

"We could not continue in the future in the building we were in, in its current state," she said, accompanied on the tour by St. John's Mayor Dennis O'Keefe and Coun. Tom Hann.

"We came to that realization several years ago so it was either renovate or build, and the federal money came through, so that made it possible to build," said Powell, who has worked with Metrobus for more than 20 years.

The $34-million project is near completion and they are optimistic buses will roll from the depot's new headquarters in August.

Ottawa contributed $26 million to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) facility, which means it is a high-performance, environmentally innovative building. The city paid the remainder.

It costs about $24 million to operate the bus system annually, half of which is paid by St. John's, with about $1 million coming from Mount Pearl. The rest comes from revenues.

"The initial estimate to upgrade was at least half of the cost of a new building," says Powell. "So if you add in the cost of trying to operate while you're renovating, that increases the cost again, plus at the end, what have you got? You've got an upgraded, old building that is at capacity. This one offers a modern, roomier facility and room for expansion down the road," she said.

The old depot - half the size of the new one and built in the 1950s - has outlived its usefulness for Metrobus, she said.

"Where we are now is landlocked. So we're building this for another 50 years, setting transit up in the region for the next several decades with room for expansion," she said.

"And for us, being a transit system and promoting ourselves as a sustainable form of transportation, being an environmental leader in the community is very important to us, so when we started this building, having a green building was very important."

Collecting rainwater

Hann calls the penthouse the control centre.

"It's the guts of the operation," he said. "One of the big features of LEEDs is it cuts back on using drinking water to wash the buses."

Hann represents city council on the St. John's Transportation Commission, which oversees Metrobus.

"Under the floor in maintenance there are huge cisterns that take the rain from the roof, that collects all the rain. That is then collected in huge tanks underneath the floor and is used to wash the buses and flush the toilets, cutting municipal consumption in half," Hann said.

The tanks will hold 200,000 litres and Powell estimates they'll collect about four million litres of rainwater a year, which will reduce the use of municipal water by about 55 per cent.

Over and above LEEDs characteristics, such as the geothermal system which uses heat from the ground, and climate control systems, Powell says the biggest change is how much space there is for bus maintenance.

"For us, in designing the main focus was the servicing and repair of the buses. The footprint of the administration area is not that different from where we are - an office is an office - but for us it was all about the servicing and the maintenance area and preparing for future growth," she said.

The new storage area has 10 bays that can hold six buses each and is large enough to accommodate the installation of bike racks on the front of the buses, which requires an extra 2 1/2 feet. The wash bay is also bigger and able to handle new, 40-foot-long buses, which are the industry standard.

Fine facility

Mike Dinn, who started as a mechanic with Metrobus when he was 29, will get to spend at least a few years in the new maintenance area before he retires.

Now the maintenance foreman, after having worked with the company for more than 20 years, he said he's seen a lot of technology upgrades over the years with the mechanics of buses, but nothing compared to the state-of-the-art facility they'll soon move into.

"It is going to be head and shoulders over what we have here," Dinn told The Telegram during a visit to the old depot.

"From the maintenance point of view, everything is laid out better. There's a better flow to work on the buses, from dumping the cash, to fuelling and washing, to repairs," he said.

Dinn said staff can't wait to get into the new building. He said the new depot is open and spacious and the exhaust system and carbon monoxide monitors will create a healthier work environment.

"All the systems within this place, we're always working on the ramps, the boilers, the compressors daily, all the overhead doors. Everything is wearing, and it's to the point now we know we're moving, so what do you do with it? Are you going to spend thousands of dollars on it or are you going to put a Band-Aid on it?"

"But this is an old facility and made for different times," said Dinn, walking through a cluttered maintenance area where the smell of oil and grease fills the air.

Powell says Metrobus broke ground on the new depot three years ago and it's been a long process which has included delays in construction due to labour shortages, but they're getting close.

She said the finishing touches are ongoing on the radio and telephone systems as well as the fuel storage tanks.

"We're within weeks now of getting that done," says Powell, adding the radio system is scheduled to be installed July 22.

"We're just trying to time everything so that everything is ready when we move, because with an operation like Metrobus there can't be any downtime. There's no going back."

Regarding the fuel system, she said Metrobus has to have two fuel tanks in place - one for backup, which is not yet complete.

Dinn and most of the other employees have already gone through orientation and are eager to move.

"We'll have to do it in a weekend so there's no disruption," he said, "but people can't wait to get up there. Once you go up, you're in awe. We're moving from night to day."