James McNair, right, and Damon Cannon tighten bolts on radiators that were rebuilt at the Carmen E. Turner Metro facility on Aug. 11 in Landover, Md. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

At the age of seven and with 250,000 miles on their engines, Metro’s buses roll off the road and into rehab, a process that guts, fixes and replaces parts on the 40-foot-long vehicles and sends them out with a fresh coat of paint.

It’s a bus’s version of a midlife facelift.

Metro says rehabbing a bus, even calculating the cost of labor and new parts, saves money and reduces breakdowns. The rehabilitation costs $120,000 per bus, making it cheaper than buying a new one for about $570,000, according to Metro officials. The transit agency typically keeps buses until age 15 — three years longer than the industry average.

“We have a structured maintenance program in place where we are trying to stretch the dollar,” said Jack Requa, assistant general manager of Metro’s bus services. “The midlife overhaul is a key component of keeping the bus on the road and providing service. The whole purpose is not having it break down.”

Metro’s buses get ridden hard.

They hit potholes daily. The air-conditioning systems struggle to keep passengers cool with doors opening and closing frequently. Brakes and tires are worn down in stop-and-go traffic. Passengers yank cords to tell the driver to stop almost every city block. And roughly 350 riders sit on the seats of each bus every day.

“We’re running them almost 24 hours a day, every day,” said James McNair, 50, of Annapolis, who has worked for Metro for five years. McNair rebuilds radiators at the Carmen Turner facility in Landover.

“You gotta do this stuff because these buses are under a lot of wear and tear,” he said. “You might as well catch it before it breaks down.”

In its bus division, Metro spends nearly $170 million a year to train mechanics and to repair, replace, maintain and fuel its fleet of about 1,500 buses. The agency has 460 buses that run on compressed natural gas, 429 hybrid buses and 601 diesel-powered vehicles. About 2,400 operators drive the vehicles.

For their makeovers, buses go to Metro’s Bladensburg facility, where they are taken apart. The parts are then trucked to the Carmen Turner facility, where they are rebuilt, cleaned and reassembled. The work used to all be done in Bladensburg, but Metro divided the work between the facilities to give crews more room.

Each year, Metro rehabs about 100 buses. The agency replaces 200 windshield wipers and 8,000 feet of the cords that are used to alert bus operators to stop. It refurbishes 4,200 seats for passengers and bus operators, and uses 10 gallons of paint to spruce up each bus. It takes eight to 10 weeks for a bus to be rebuilt, with roughly 107 employees involved in the rehab.

On the Orion 7 bus, for example, it costs $500 to rebuild a farebox, compared with buying a new one at $13,000, according to figures from Metro’s bus division. And it costs $6,100 to buy a new radiator vs. $2,700 to rebuild one.

Rehabbing a bus helps it have fewer breakdowns, Metro said. For fiscal 2011, a Metro bus traveled 7,590 miles, on average, before it had a breakdown, compared with fiscal 2009, when it went 5,669 miles. The increase in performance was attributed to having newer buses and rehabbing older buses, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

Missing signatures

Metro’s bus division has faced some criticism for its daily maintenance program.

A June internal audit from Metro’s inspector general found that of 1,379 inspection records, about 10 percent were missing signatures on work order and inspection forms that detail what maintenance has been done on a vehicle and whether it has been inspected. The survey was done between September 2010 and February 2011 at four of Metro’s bus garages, including Bladensburg, Landover, Northern and Western. The auditors did not review the midlife rehab program at the Turner facility.

According to the report, one division superintendent told auditors that “they were always putting out ‘fires.’ ” The superintendent said they needed “additional personnel to complete the paperwork.” The audit also faulted the bus division for not having enough oil filters, oil pan gaskets or other parts on hand for repairs.

Jack Requa, head of Metro’s bus division, wrote in a response to the inspector general that the agency was moving to electronic signatures for repairs and inspections instead of manual signatures. The bus maintenance division, which has about 900 employees, typically has about 50 vacancies and is looking to hire more mechanics and supervisors.

Stessel said the agency has buses that “may be out of service for longer than necessary” because of a lack of parts. But he said that there are enough buses to meet “schedule requirements” and that the agency is working “to make sure there’s an adequate supply of parts on hand” to fix vehicles.

Metro is also working to replace some of its older buses.

The transit authority plans to spend $89.3 million to buy 152 new hybrid buses, which are scheduled to be in service by December and will get better gas mileage.

‘Like it’s brand new’

In a rehab warehouse at the Carmen Turner facility, hulking engines stand in a row near transmissions and axles waiting to be gutted, cleaned and refurbished.

Many of the bus mechanics have worked on police cars or for automakers or private repair shops. Some have been with the agency for two decades or more.

Raphael Grant, 63, of Silver Spring works on rehabbing engines and transmissions. A 24-year veteran of Metro, he spends 40 hours to overhaul an engine, replacing pistons, rod bearings, water and fuel pumps, gaskets and sensors — all to “put it back in like it’s brand new.”

Twenty years ago, Grant said, his father told him a story of a bus he was riding on breaking down.

“He said to me, ‘Your bus broke,’ ” recalled Grant. “That stayed with me and reminded me: You have to do a better job.

“I try to do my best every day so that I’m proud to know that when a bus is out on the street trying to get people home and to work, it runs safely and reliably.”