Last stop, Nicaragua: Countries snap up American school buses; Aging vehicles get a second life in public transportation

By Laurence Iliff
Staff Writer

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MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Yellow school buses bearing names like “Cranberry Area School District” and “Dade County Schools” ply the streets of this Central American capital, as passengers hang out of the windows to fight the heat.

Making their way around tiny Asian SUVs, the tightly packed buses could be carrying American kids on a reality tour of Nicaragua, the hemisphere’s second-poorest country after Haiti. But these passengers are not schoolchildren from Indiana’s Fayette County School Corp., Pennsylvania’s Cranberry schools or Florida’s Dade County.

The buses – big slices of Americana sold in the United States as junk after a long life of spitball fights – form the backbone of a public transportation system left to cash-strapped private operators who look for the cheapest vehicles.

Indeed, the vast majority of all Managua buses are yellow-and-black imports from school districts across the United States. And similar vehicles can be found throughout Central America and the Caribbean, from Guatemala to Havana.

The American school bus invasion, as the Nicaragua case shows, is an exercise in economics.

The government-controlled bus fare in Managua is 13 cents, regardless of distance, with no subsidies.

“This is a job of daily survival in Managua,” says Leonel Orozco, head of the 12th of October public transportation cooperative, one of many bus operators. “The 13-cent fare barely covers our costs. The real fare should be at least 20 cents.”

It would be easy just to give up the job entirely. But this is a country with massive unemployment, and Managua is a city of more than a million, all of whom need to get around.

Enter the school buses. Mr. Orozco has personally bought and transported 17 of them from resellers, including one from Texas.

Why? Because they are cheap. Very cheap.

A new city bus in Nicaragua costs from $170,000 to $200,000, and there is virtually no financing from the government or the near-bankrupt banking system, says Mr. Orozco.

In contrast, a typical used American school bus sells for $4,000 to $6,000. And once it’s been driven through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, that very same vehicle can be sold in Nicaragua for around $20,000, he says.

No wonder 70 percent of the 1,200 buses criss-crossing Managua – and of the 2,500 buses in this country of 5 million people – are used American school buses, according to Mr. Orozco. Another 20 percent, he says, are Brazilian-made Mercedes-Benz vehicles bought by the Sandinista government during its rule from 1979 to 1990.

A small number are Eastern European units once used by the Soviet-backed Nicaraguan military, which was fighting U.S.-backed contra rebels.Nicaragua’s transportation cooperatives prefer their used American school buses to run on diesel fuel because it’s cheaper than gasoline. Likewise, stick shifts are favored over automatics, Mr. Orozco says, since the constant stop-and-go of city bus service is hard on automatic transmissions.

After two or three years of the buses trundling through Managua, engine problems begin to take their toll, and fresh used buses are needed, he adds. Luckily, there’s always a ready supply in the United States.

“The transportation system works pretty well, despite the obstacles,” says Mr. Orozco. His cooperative and others in charge of providing bus service in the capital are in constant struggle with the government, which has not raised the fare in two years.

While the population is happy with the low fares, operators are not, Mr. Orozco says. They are threatening to charge a higher fare on their own, with or without official permission.

Are some of the buses here from Texas schools, or more specifically, from Dallas County Schools? Probably, but it’s hard to tell.

When Dallas-based buses are sold, their names are removed from the side of the buses, says Deanne Hullander, public information director for Dallas County Schools, which handles transportation for districts within the county.

“You don’t really want your name out there if it’s being used for other purposes,” she says.

Indeed, many of the U.S. vehicles in Nicaragua have their origins blacked out.

Most Dallas buses get retired after 10 or 12 years of service, says Ms. Hullander.

“Most of our buses go to individuals or churches,” she says, but adds: “It would not surprise me one bit if they did [take them abroad.] We really don’t know where they end up.”

Some of the yellow school buses have made it into the hands of solidarity groups that take them through Mexican ports to communist Cuba over the objections of the U.S. State Department.

Ed Cox, president of Sunset Bus sales in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., says he even gets inquiries from as far away as China and Eastern Europe for used vehicles, although not all are for school buses.

“Most of the old school buses seem to go out of the country because they’re cheap,” he says.

Buyers generally show up with cash, and some are never heard from again, he adds, wondering out loud why anyone would care.

But back in Managua, Mr. Orozco, the bus operator, takes a different view. If there were no used school buses to buy from the United States, it’s hard to imagine how Nicaraguans would get around, given the controlled fares.

“Things would be very chaotic without these vehicles,” he says. “It would be like returning to the 19th century. We would have to use horses and buggies.”

Staff writer Joshua Benton in Dallas contributed to this report.