TAMPA — Carlos Morales shrugs at the numbers. Hundreds of tires a year. Thousands over the past six on buses finding their way into his cramped corner of a maintenance yard.
Coated with oil, brake dust and dirt, his hands have a perpetual griminess that makes visitors wary, as if he might extend a welcoming hand.
"Fifteen to 20 tires a day," something like that, he said, shrugging, as he calculated his daily output. They sit floor-to-ceiling on racks all around him, waiting to be bolted onto buses. More are piled out back.
The bus-riding public might not know it, but all this saves Hillsborough Area Regional Transit $187,000 a year. And similar work saves the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority about $150,000 a year.
HART and PSTA, like many transit authorities, don't buy tires for their buses.
They lease them.
"When you go through as many tires as we do, it makes sense to look for savings," said George Hauck, HART's manager of fleet maintenance.
In January alone, HART's fleet of 191 buses logged 772,498 miles on 1,146 tires. Its tire-leasing contract, worth $450,000, is up for renewal this year.
HART and PSTA say the leasing program saves on overhead and insurance costs. PSTA has been leasing its tires since 1984.
"It benefits us not only monetarily, but cuts down on staff time," said PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher. "We don't have to track and inventory the tires."
New tires, which run $600 each, are included in the leasing contracts. And the agencies don't have to worry about what to do with the old tires.
Morales, 51, doesn't work for HART. He works for Cyrus Inc., a contractor hired by Goodyear to inventory the tires and oversee their replacement.
With tires that each are 22 inches at the inside diameter and 175 pounds, Morales hoists them to their intended targets with a crowbar and heaves them into place.
Last Thursday, a truck backed its way to Morales' workshop off E 21st Avenue near Tampa to unload two dozen new tires, just as it does once a month.
Morales deftly rolled and spun them into a neat row against a wall. He doesn't mind the work, he said, but could use help some days.
"When the economy is good, nobody wants to do this job. Nobody," he said.
When not replacing tires, Morales walks amid rows of buses at the maintenance yard, checking tread depth with a palm-sized gauge and making note of which tires need changing. Another man, also working for Cyrus, takes the night shift.
Unlike car tires, bus tires are designed to run 30,000 to 40,000 miles depending on the route, and can be "regrooved" and "recapped" to extend their life another 25,000 miles.
As expected, potholes, sharp turns and curbs are why bus tires typically contain 4 inches of vulcanized rubber.
If the grooves wear down to less than 3/32 of an inch, a worker like Morales can simply schedule them for a spin on his machine. The device, called, aptly enough, "the groover," carves out fresh treads.
Bus tires can be regrooved up to five times before they're finally forced out of service. After that, the tires are trucked back to the contractor for recapping, starting the cycle all over.
Federal law mandates that tires on public service vehicles — buses, vans, fire engines and ambulances — be recapped only once, and that recapped and regrooved tires be placed at the rear of vehicles only.
Only new tires can be used on the front to ensure drivers better steering control through the tire's lifespan, Hauck said.
Tires too worn for recapping are trucked to recycling plants and chopped into mulch.
Hauck can't say exactly how many tires the agency goes through yearly. He estimated that Morales and his night-shift co-worker installed about 800 new tires last year, not including recaps.
"That's a lot of tires and lot of miles," he said, "and when you're buying 700 to 800 tires a time, that's a big chunk of change."