Under the hood: Keeping up with UAF’s fleet is full-time job

Heather Bryant / Sun Star Reporter
April 19, 2011

Everyday, dozens of UAF vehicles move around campus. Blue shuttle buses transport people across campus. Heavy equipment clears snow away. Vans, cars, trucks and SUVs carry university employees around as they do their jobs. It takes many wheels to keep the university in working order, and these wheels are all under the purview of Sarah Mousseau.

Mousseau is the transportation manager. She is responsible for monitoring the fleet of vehicles owned by facility services. The fleet is made up of more than 300 vehicles varying from lawnmowers to boom trucks and front loaders. They vary in location as well as size, with vehicles in Nome, Fort Yukon, Bethel, Kodiak and Galena.

“We have a pretty good assortment, and we try to maintain the things we need the most,” Mousseau said. “We have a pool of vehicles for the university to rent when they need it. Biology field trips and geology field trips, they rent a lot.”

Professor Chien–Lu Ping works with the Alaska Geography Field Studies program, taking students from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay to see the landscape transitions. Access to vehicles that can handle the demands of the Dalton Highway is important.

“There’s a limited number of cars allowed to go on the haul road because of conditions,” Ping said. “Without those vehicles we couldn’t do it.” Ping cites the loading capacity, reliability and expediency of renting the vehicles from the university as the main perks of the program.

Tony de Balzo attaches trim to the lower panel of a van door. Del Balzo has been working in the automotive shop since October 2010. Heather Bryant/Sun Star

Part of keeping UAF’s fleet of vehicles in good working order is the full service garage at facility services. Four mechanics and a student, who handle everything from tune-ups to repair, staff the garage.

“We’re the automotive shop, there’s an electrical shop, an HVAC shop and a plumbing shop and a warehouse,” said Andrew Gale, a mechanic. “We have our own carpentry shop. We’re like our own little mall and campus is our customer.”

Gale moved from Michigan four years ago for a job at UAF. As a light duty mechanic, he works mostly on the assortment of vans, trucks, SUVs and cars that come into the shop. However, he often finds himself stepping in to help wherever needed.

“If I see a student’s having an issue or something’s wrong, but that’s just my personality, I’m more than willing to help out and see if I can get them going again,” he said.

Tony del Balzo, a junior and criminal justice major, has been with the automotive shop since October 2010. Del Balzo said he has been picking up skills since he started in the shop.

“Everybody can use mechanical skills,” del Balzo said. “People don’t realize how many vehicles the university has and how much goes into maintaining them and keeping the school running.”

The shuttle system is the most visible part of the UAF fleet to students. The routes log hundreds of miles each week, transporting students, staff, faculty and visitors around campus.

Todd Smith, the Shuttle Supervisor, has been with the university since February 2007. Before that, he worked a variety of automotive jobs, received his Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification. He was in the Air Force nine and a half years. Now he is responsible for the seven buses and 14 shuttle drivers who make up his department.

Smith points out that a common misconception about the shuttles is that it’s easy to change routes or add routes. Currently, there are just enough shuttle drivers to cover the current routes. Adding another route would involve hiring more drivers and buying more shuttles. The shuttle buses cost approximately $250,000 a piece and are custom built. It takes about two years, from design to completion, for the university to get one. The current set of shuttles was built in 2006, so it’s not likely they will need to be replaced anytime soon.

Jay Bean started at UAF in fall 2008. Bean, 21, is a geology major who uses the shuttles when it’s cold out.

“I really like the shuttle program because it is easy to use and the drivers are really friendly,” Bean said.

Smith keeps track of ridership information for each of the shuttles. “Our numbers are consistently going higher and higher,” Smith said. During the first week of classes, the week of Jan. 24, records show that there were more than 11,000 rides on the shuttles. A ride is defined as a person taking the shuttle from one stop to another. That number is an increase of almost 2,000 rides from 2010.

“We try to, every once in a while, stand back and we’ll look and see if there’s a bigger need somewhere, so we can put the shuttles to better use,” Smith said.

UAF employee and graduate student Nicole Carlson, 28, rides the shuttles several times a week.

“I ride the Green line mostly, I work in Gruening, taking the other scheduled routes when I have meetings up on the West Ridge once or twice a month,” Carlson said. “Overall I am happy with the service and am especially grateful for it when it’s cold or raining.”

A change coming this summer will be that service for all shuttles switches from the normal routes during the school year to on-call service. Since there are fewer people on campus in the summer, running regular routes makes less sense. “If someone calls from West Ridge, I can have someone there in three to five minutes,” Smith said. Otherwise, the wait could be closer to 15 or 20 minutes for a shuttle on a route. When the semester ends though, the shuttles will still be going. The only difference is the passengers will change from students to tourists and conference attendees.

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