The rear engine of a Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District (SCMTD) bus caught fire last week near Colleges Nine and Ten on campus because of an electrical short, causing dozens to be evacuated on Nov. 30. Though the bus was at full capacity at 7 p.m., the time of the incident, no serious injuries were reported. The bus will be retired because the cost of repairs is estimated to be more than $100,000.

This is not the first fire this year for SCMTD. Another bus caught fire due to internal oil leakage on Pine Flat Road in Bonny Doon on Nov. 21. All passengers were evacuated from this bus without injury as well. Unlike the bus from last Thursday’s fire, this bus will return to operation after repairs.

A Metro bus caught fire, forcing evacuation on Nov. 30.
Photo courtesy of Logan Martinez

Both buses that caught fire were the same model from 1998, about five years past the recommended retirement age. The bus that caught fire on Nov. 21 had 792,000 miles, while the bus that caught fire on Nov. 30 had 730,000 miles. These buses are typically expected to last 12-14 years and 500,000 miles, said CEO and general manager of SCMTD Alex Clifford.

SCMTD plans to inspect the electrical systems and replace all turbochargers with over 200,000 miles on all 28 buses from 1998, Clifford said in an email.

Bus fires in Santa Cruz have not typically resulted in injury for riders, said Jim Frawley, Santa Cruz fire chief.

“In my 29 years in the fire service and going to hundreds of bus fires, I have yet to see anybody be injured other than the driver, who was trying to put out a fire,” Frawley said.

SCMTD has 62 buses that need to be replaced out of its fleet of 98 buses. Though the department has allocated $3 million annually toward repairing and replacing buses with funding from local city tax measures, it is still not enough to meet the company’s needs, Clifford said. Depending on the type of new bus that SCMTD purchases, the total cost could run anywhere from $43-60 million.

The department purchased six new buses with state funding and grants over the last two years, but does not have enough money to replace all the outdated vehicles.

According to Clifford, SCMTD is limited in part by decreasing state and federal funding over recent years. He is hopeful that a new state law, Senate Bill (SB) 1, which will take full effect by July 2020, will provide funds to replace buses.

“SB 1 will provide more than $700 million annually for public transportation projects across the state,” Clifford said in an email. “The metro anticipates receiving about $2 million per year more as a result.”