DOBSON — Surry County Schools is looking to hire an architect to help provide a needed expansion to its bus garage.
The school district has written out nearly $100 million in needs for its 18 school campuses over the next five years, but that doesn’t include any funds for a half-century-old garage that services 260 vehicles for three school systems.
Not only does the garage off Atkins Street take care of school buses, activity buses and Surry County cars and trucks, the center also handles repairs for Mount Airy and Elkin city schools.
And all this work comes from a garage that has only three work bays.
Other school districts with comparable fleets to maintain have six to eight bays, noted Rodney Hardy, the school system’s transportation director.
The state Department of Public Instruction has a facility planner that can provide guidance when planning out a garage, Hardy said. According to the department, Surry County should have at least six bays.
A neighboring county has a three-bay garage, but only has a fourth of the number of buses to maintain, he pointed out.
There are times when a bus is being repaired that a delay occurs. Maybe a necessary part isn’t in stock and has to be ordered. The broken bus has to be towed out of the garage to make room for another that can be repaired while waiting. The lot can be filled with buses waiting for an empty bay.
Not only does the garage handle typical repair and regular maintenance such as oil changes, but the state requires that buses be inspected monthly.
There are 421 issues that can park a bus, said Hardy. Each month during the 10-month school cycle, the transportation department checks for these problems.
Because of the lack of space, the workers in the 11-man department will travel out to the schools and do inspections in the parking lot.
Some minor repairs can be done in a parking lot, too, but because of the weather and the needs of the repair, much of the work still needs a bay.
For example, Hardy said buses that need to be jacked up have to be inside the bay on the concrete floor. This foundation is strong enough to take the weight, but a lift outside on asphalt would be too much weight per square inch and would cause the asphalt to crumble.
The bus fleet is getting up in age, too, said Hardy, who has been with the department for 11 years. The older buses are needing more service to keep them in good working shape.
Not only does the garage need more work space, the bays that the county does have are too small.
Hardy said he believes the garage was originally built in the 1950s. The buses used today are 72-passenger capacity compared to 54 on the older models. The vehicles are longer and only fit inside with some careful driving and parking.
With the rear of a bus right up against the bay door, the front end is snug up to the tool rack in the front.
Bus hoods fold outward, and with the hoods out, the side mirrors nearly touch the workbench. The mechanics struggle to reach tools on the wall, and they can’t easily shift from one side of the engine to the other; they either have to raise the hood or squat and duck-walk under it.
Only one of the three bays is a pull-through design with doors on both ends. At least that bay gives ample room around the engine.
For the other two bays, if a bus needs work on its back end, then the lift behind the bus prevents the bay door from being closed. On frigid winter days, the mechanics can’t close the garage and heat the work space.
It’s like being a shade-tree mechanic, Hardy believes.
It creates a difficult work environment, but the workers don’t sacrifice safety because of the tight confines, he said. The county always does well in annual safety inspections.
Obviously, though, this isn’t an efficient work space, said Dr. Travis Reeves, superintendent.
“We want to continue to use this existing facility; it has served us well,” said Reeves. The three existing bays do quite well for servicing school pickups and cars.
What the school system would like to do is analyze the property and develop a plan for an expansion. Three or more bays could be added on the site, with blueprints taking current bus needs into account.
The property is quite long, but not very wide, more like a bowling alley. Because of the wide turn radius of a bus, and the way that the property slopes downward further back, Reeves wants an expert’s opinion on the lay of the land, grading needs, the orientation of any new structure and other design particulars.
About eight or 10 years ago, the county Board of Commissioners bought three additional acres at the back end of the property, said Reeves.
That area is wooded, but could be logged for timber and cleared out to make additional space for parking buses and storing parts and equipment.
Reeves said there have been times when Hardy ordered new tires, but didn’t have anywhere to store them, so the tires were left outside in the parking lot in the elements, which isn’t best for the life of the rubber.
It could be a long process, Reeves said. But taking these ideas about expansion and putting them down on paper is the first step.
He said the district will be seeking funding from the county to hire an architect.
Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.