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Wheels on the bus: Livermore-based GILLIG making mark on transit nationwide

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When we’re on our way to pick up my wife from the BART stop after work, the children’s tune inevitably comes to mind each time my son talks about the “city bus” he spots on our drive.


After ending up directly behind a County Connection one the other afternoon, staring at the bumper I couldn’t help but think maybe it’s time Bay Area families add a new verse to their renditions to reflect the growing commonality of the local source – if you’ll forgive me playing out the dad joke, “the frame on the bus is built by GILLIG, built by GILLIG…”


Of course the reality is the entire bus is manufactured by the Livermore-based company (that’s why its name is prominently featured right above the license plate, among other places), and it’s the fuel and design technologies of the transit vehicles that helps GILLIG stand out the most.


Whether one of its fuel-efficient, low-emission or “Zero-Emission Battery Electric” options, GILLIG buses are everywhere. In the Tri-Valley, the company serves both County Connection at the north end and LAVTA/Wheels to the south.


You’ll see them around the greater Bay Area too (AC Transit, VTA, SamTrans, Marin Transit and Santa Cruz METRO, to name a few). And as highlighted by a string of press releases so far in 2024, agencies across the country are lining up to get on board with GILLIG.


“Our growth plans in the greater Bay Area are the same as our national strategy: we will continue to strengthen and serve these existing partnerships while we thoughtfully enter new markets and expand our market share,” GILLIG marketing manager Marz Evans told me this week. 


“Our dedication to providing a diverse portfolio of low- and zero-emission vehicles ensures that we not only meet today’s transit needs but also drive the future of environmentally responsible transportation solutions for all our partners,” Evans added. 


Integral to its current growth, GILLIG opened its modernized 600,000-square-foot plant in Livermore to build its mass transit buses in 2017, relocating from its prior home of nearly 50 years in Hayward for more space. Evans noted the roots of the business date back to the 1890s, originally fulfilling the Bay Area’s carriage upholstery needs of the era, before pivoting to the automotive industry.


The move to Livermore was “more than just expanding our physical footprint; it was about reaffirming our commitment to our team and to Californian, and American, manufacturing,” Evans said. 


“We chose Livermore despite the higher cost of land and the complexities of manufacturing within the state because our priority was to keep our dedicated team together,” Evans added. “Our leadership took the extraordinary step of mapping out the commutes of every employee to ensure that our new location was as accessible as possible for the majority, hence minimizing disruption to our workforce.”


And that refreshingly holistic decision continues to pay dividends for the family-owned company.


On Monday, GILLIG announced a new, five-year contract with longstanding client King County Metro in the Seattle area for an initial order of 89 GILLIG Low Floor Battery Electric-brand buses, with an option for the agency to buy up to another 306 of the zero-emission buses.


That news came two weeks after a press release about the delivery of 35 near-zero-emission GILLIG buses to ABQ Ride (with another 18 scheduled to arrive midyear) serving the Albuquerque area. These vehicles are adorned with “mobile mural” paint wraps depicting New Mexico landscapes. 


And it was an East Coast welcome on Jan. 4, with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority serving greater St. Petersburg, Fla., introducing the first six of its 62 GILLIG Battery Electric buses.


But perhaps the biggest step of 2024 for GILLIG occurred in late February, when the company announced its subsidiary GERCO LLC acquired in a receivership sale select assets from Lightning eMotors and Lightning Systems and hired some of its engineers – leading to the creation of GILLIG’s new Colorado Technology Center in Loveland as an engineering hub.


Not to be overlooked either, GILLIG solidified five-year collective bargaining agreements with its units of the Teamsters and Painters unions. 


The internal and external contracts should position GILLIG well as it works to bolster its national brand from “a leading manufacturer of heavy-duty transit buses in the United States” to “the leading manufacturer,” raising the Tri-Valley’s reputation along with it.


I guess I’ll have to figure out a way to get “Livermore” into my new version of “Wheels on the Bus” soon – it is proving a tricky one, syllabically.

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