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Credit: Photo: City of LaCrosse

Randy Hinze, street superintendent with LaCrosse, Wis., said his department now purchases trucks with automatic instead of manual transmissions. An automatic transmission allows for more efficient operation of the vehicle at slower speeds and lets the driver focus on multiple tasks.

The city of Harrisburg, Pa., has come up with a way to specify trucks so that when the fleet manager learns money is available, he can move quickly to order the equipment. The process has been picked up in the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, said George Schwarz, director of the bureau of vehicle management in Harrisburg.

“A government doesn't know how often it will have money or how much money it will have,” said Schwarz. “We could have money one time a year or several times a year.”

With the new process, Schwarz writes an open-ended specification for equipment. The spec outlines the delivery procedure, puts a time frame on it, and asks manufacturers to quote profit margins over cost. “Then we open the bids and we award the contract to the lowest profit-margin bidder,” said Schwarz. “That way we can publish the spec for a given term and hold it open.” When Schwarz learns he has money to buy trucks, he already knows the winning manufacturer's profit. “I ask how much his cost is and add his cost to the profit, and the subtotal is the purchase order,” he said.

How does Schwarz guard against manufacturers raising their cost figure to add in more profit? “Cost disclosure is a requirement on request. And I have a software program that tells me costs. The software is called PC Carbook, and it's published by Chrome Data. It tells you the costs of any vehicle you want to buy.

“This process allows me to make the purchase of a vehicle and encumber money without going through the three months it normally takes to prepare a spec and send it out for public bid,” said Schwarz. “That procedure has been done. I don't have to advertise again and send it out for bids.”

In March, Schwarz took delivery of a new GMC Top Kick truck, rated at 35,000 pounds gross vehicle weight rating. The unit is upfitted with a J&J aluminum truck body, a Valk Manufacturing Co. snow plow, a Monroe tailgate salt spreader, and a Snow Equipment calcium chloride system. The truck is equipped with a 7.2-liter, turbocharged Caterpillar engine. The engine has Cat's ACERT system to meet Tier 2 emissions standards—adding a surcharge of about $3500 to the truck. Harrisburg has about 75 medium- and heavy-duty trucks, and some 450 pieces of rolling stock.

Going Automatic

More than ever, cities and counties are specifying automatic transmissions. Schwarz said Harrisburg has specified automatics for about 16 years, and the brand of choice is Allison. In LaCrosse, Wis., the department of public works is switching to automatics. “Now I have eight tandem-axle trucks and four of them are automatics,” said Randy Hinze, street superintendent. “And on single-axle trucks, I have three automatics out of 15.”

Why automatics? “With today's multipurpose trucks—ours have a wing snow plow, a front plow, and spreader controls— an automatic gives the operator one less thing to do,” said Hinze. “They're less complicated.”

“Automatics permit any individual with the proper licensing and knowledge to get in the unit and drive,” said Schwarz.

Hinze said LaCrosse pulls leaf vacuums—at a very slow speed—behind single axle trucks. “With manual transmissions we were burning out clutches because we had to go so slow,” said Hinze. “We don't have to worry about that with automatics.”

Daniel C. Brown is a freelance writer in Des Plaines, Ill.