Peculiar Pittsburgh

A behind-the-scenes look at how Port Authority keeps its buses clean in the winter

‘Grandma on the corner needs to be picked up, and I don’t like her sitting in garbage.’

See the large metal frames? They move along the bus, spraying water.

See the large metal frames? They move along the bus, spraying water.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
Rossilynne Culgan

Think about how tough it is to keep your car clean in the winter. Now imagine trying to keep a fleet of 703 buses looking shiny and fresh on salt- and snow-covered roads.

The salt and grime are a formidable opponent for the crew at Port Authority of Allegheny County’s Ross Garage, where the buses are washed — inside and out — every. single. day.

You’ve probably seen a bus with “Ross Garage” on its headsign. That means it’s headed back to its home in a sprawling 3.5-acre garage off of 279 in Ross Township, where a crew, led by manager of maintenance and service Paul J. Zatek, cares for 157 buses in Port Authority’s fleet.

High speed sprayers fight dust and dirt.

High speed sprayers fight dust and dirt.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

“They get washed every day. They get mopped every day,” he said. “It’s a hard job. It’s a costly job.”

But it’s also a very important job.

It’s simple, Zatek said: “Grandma on the corner needs to be picked up, and I don’t like her sitting in garbage. […] I have 157 vehicles. I want to make sure they’re safe and they look good going down the road.”

The scene inside Ross Garage.

The scene inside Ross Garage.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

When the buses are done for the day, they pull in, drop off their cash boxes and head into a washing area. There, the Port Authority service team fuels the bus, hoses off its aluminum wheels and scrubs the rims with soapy water until they sparkle.

Then, the crew heads inside, using a super-powered vacuum to vanquish garbage and grit into a 20-foot dumpster. In addition to the daily cleaning, during which the seats are blown off with air, the interior undergoes a deep cleaning every 45 days.

Finally, they mop the floor, ridding it of a day’s worth of traffic from salty, wet boots.

They move with the speed and precision of a Daytona 500 pit crew.

A high-powered blower removes dust from the seats every day.

A high-powered blower removes dust from the seats every day.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
If you leave garbage on the bus (which you shouldn't!), this is where it goes.

If you leave garbage on the bus (which you shouldn't!), this is where it goes.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

Then, the driver pulls the bus through what looks like a giant version of a carwash. Soap enhanced with a wax conditioner douses the bus. Massive brushes move along the frame scrubbing away the grime and bubbles. After their shower, the buses pull away from the machines gleaming and ready to drip dry.

Only suds are left.

Only suds are left.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

It’s the same process every day, no matter the weather. In the winter, salty interiors are the nemesis. In the summer, the crew pays extra attention to pressure washing the radiators so the buses won’t overheat.

If the bus isn’t perfectly clean, some technicians will even say “take it around again when we’ve had tons of snow and ice,” Zatek said. “I’ve got a super crew. “They take pride in their work. … Every employee takes pride in it, and I’m proud of Ross.”

Zatek knows these buses front and back, and he can easily tick off stats about his fleet: The oldest bus is 12, the youngest is just two months. He’s got 10 hybrids and 15 articulated (a.k.a. bendy) buses.

The wash rack is set to be replaced this summer with a more environmentally friendly model that will recycle 85 to 95 percent of its water, which will be filtered and reused to continue washing buses. The new set-up will also include a blowdryer.

In addition to the washing operation, Ross Garage also houses a body shop, state inspection station and paint booth — the scale of this place is truly staggering. And it’s just one of Port Authority’s four garages with similar wash operations across the county to care for the other 546 buses in the fleet. The others are located in West Mifflin, East Liberty and Collier.

A day's worth of Pittsburgh grime.

A day's worth of Pittsburgh grime.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

Even with the upgrades to the Ross Garage wash station, it’ll be a constant job for the crew — especially during a snowy, salty Pittsburgh winter.

“You can leave here and go 50 feet,” Zatek said, “and the sides of the bus are dirty.”