Long road ahead for Victoria Transit after fire

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Jan. 2, 2018 at 9:42 p.m.
Updated Jan. 3, 2018 at 6 a.m.

A fire truck sits at the end of the row of Victoria Transit buses after a fire ignited in the 1900 block of North Laurent Street. Thirty-two buses were destroyed in the fire, said Victoria Fire Marshal Tom Legler. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

A fire truck sits at the end of the row of Victoria Transit buses after a fire ignited in the 1900 block of North Laurent Street. Thirty-two buses were destroyed in the fire, said Victoria Fire Marshal Tom Legler. The cause of the fire is under investigation.   Nicolas Galindo for The Victoria Advocate

Officials estimate it will cost $2.7 million to replace 32 buses that mysteriously caught fire before the holidays.

Joe Brannan, the executive director of the Golden Crescent Planning Commission, said the buses could be replaced within six months, but that's being optimistic.

The Golden Crescent Planning Commission runs Victoria Transit.

For some, such as the elderly and people with disabilities, Victoria Transit is their only mode of transportation.

Brannan and Lisa Cortinas, the director of transportation services, assured the Victoria City Council on Tuesday that they have insurance through the Texas Municipal League that is responding to their claim. However, they don't expect to receive much compensation for each bus because they were older, purchased between 2009 and 2015.

They said they were hopeful the state or federal government would make up the difference.

After the meeting, Brannan said he learned the government stepped up after a fleet in Northern Arkansas sustained damage from a fire.

He said he wasn't considering raising the rates at this time.

"If we raised our rates enough to replace the buses, nobody would ride the bus; but right now, I'm not even going to presuppose that. We received verbal assurances that we would be made whole. I'm operating on the premise that they are telling me the truth," he said.

In the meantime, VISD, First Group in Fort Bend County, the Brazos Transit District, the Rural Economic Assistance League and Goliad Rural Transit have loaned buses to Victoria Transit.

Victoria Transit pays for the insurance for those buses and for the fuel.

VISD needs their buses back by the time school starts next week, so Victoria Transit continues to look for more.

The Corpus Christi Regional Transit Authority is supposed to loan Victoria Transit two, 35-foot buses by the end of this week.

"The most important thing is we get the service out to the public," Cortinas said.

The cause of the fire, meanwhile, is still unknown, Brannan said.

The fire was detected early Dec. 23 in the 1900 block of North Laurent Street, where the buses were stored.

They are now stored securely off Ben Wilson Street at the Victoria Electric Co-Op's former site.

The Victoria fire marshal, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the State Fire Marshal's Office have assisted in the investigation, and so far, they know where the fire started.

"There were cameras on the back of the old Albertson's building, but it did not show anybody," Brannan said. "There was an officer parked on the Laurent Tower side, who said he smelled smoke, whipped around but didn't see anybody."

In other business, a tree presentation was rescheduled for the City Council's Jan. 16 meeting because Councilman Andrew Young, who asked for it to be placed on the agenda, was absent Tuesday. He has the flu.

Regardless, a handful of residents complained about two live oak trees that were cut down on Santa Rosa Street on Christmas Eve.

Sandra McKenzie said one measured 91 inches around before reading a poem by Joyce Kilmer.

Some asked for the City Council to pass an ordinance that would establish a 30- to 60-day moratorium on trees being cut down in historical districts, enough time to research whether they are worth saving.

Others thought the city should establish a permitting process like it does with other construction projects.

"How can we ever hope to have a beautiful city if we, both citizens and our elected officials, do not place a higher value on our natural assets?" Gary Dunnam, who once led the Victoria County Historical Commission.

Walter Womack, who lived in downtown Victoria for years but has since relocated to Mission Valley, urged the City Council to proceed with caution though.

"This evening, three people said we don't want to infringe on people's rights, and yet, I think that's exactly what they want," he said.

The City Council did not respond.

Councilwoman Jan Scott was absent.

In their last act of the meeting, the City Council approved an about $350,000 contract with Fun Abounds to repair or restore various areas of city parks damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

They include the community center's splash pad and playground, Grover's Bend playground, the Rose Garden and the shade canopies at the youth sport's complex.

Councilwoman Josephine Solis flipped through photos of the work to be done in the packet and asked whether the materials used could withstand high winds. City staff said they would look into it.

Additionally, Mayor Paul Polasek asked how easily they could be disassembled and learned in some cases, it would be a two-person job that would take a day.

He noted this would not have helped during Harvey, which developed into a hurricane within hours.

City Manager Charmelle Garrett said the money going toward this contract came out of an account the City Council established on Oct. 3 in the hurricane's wake, and if the city is reimbursed by insurance or FEMA, the money will go back into that account.

*This story was updated on Jan. 3.


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