Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




February 1 , 2008

I am a longtime supporter of public transportation, and have been so since my youth when I used to ride around Oakland on AC Transit, often getting off and walking the last 10 blocks home along E. 14th only because I thought it extravagant to pay the extra 10 cent it used to cost to go past 73rd Avenue. I was born too late to ride on the old Key System, but I fell in love with light rail when I worked, for a time, in San Jose, and thereafter thought that its reintroduction into Oakland would help ease the city’s traffic and parking problems in our city, and might also help to reinvigorate the downtrodden parts of International Boulevard east of High Street as well as West Oakland’s floundering business and commercial districts.

I say that because some of the more vocal supporters of AC Transit’s new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal often make the charge that any criticism or even critical analysis of AC Transit or BRT automatically equates to opposition to public transit and rapid transit, and that to support the latter two, you must ever and always beat the drum for the former two. The charges most recently surfaced in the online reader comment section of the first of a two-part East Bay Express series by investigative reporter Robert Gammon on AC Transit’s relationship with the Van Hool bus company of Belgium.

On January 28th, reader Robert Kruger posted “The Van Hool story is further complicated by neighborhood opponents of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), who have realized that stirring up outrage over the Van Hools helps them build opposition to the whole BRT project. Mr. Gammon's article plays right into their hands, without any critical examination of the motives they might have for painting the Van Hools in such a negative light.” Five days earlier, an East Bay blogger, dto510, took off after Mr. Gammon himself, writing that: “This harmful tirade represents a wholesale embrace of the anti-transit agenda sweeping the East Bay, which seeks to prevent the establishment of the world's most popular mass transit system, BRT, to preserve a handful of parking spaces.” And NovoMetro columnist V Smoothe, who I just praised in last week’s column for her analysis (sigh), wrote in her A Better Oakland January 23rd blog“I cannot overlook or forgive this week’s insane cover story [in the East Bay Express] which appears to be an attempt to turn the whining of a handful of Van Hool haters into yet another bullshit excuse to bitch about BRT.”

There is, actually, a nexus between the Van Hool buses and BRT, although it is not in the manner in which Mr. Kruger, (Mr.? Ms.?) dto510, and Ms. Smoothe portray it. The Van Hools are intended to be the backbone of BRT. The 60 foot, articulated versions (the two-part buses with the “accordion” in the middle) currently operate along AC Transit’s 1-1R Telegraph Avenue-International Boulevard-E. 14th Street route that is intended to eventually become the BRT route, and one can reasonably assume that the district intends that these buses—or some other Van Hool model—will run along BRT if BRT becomes a reality.

If BRT is to attract a large number of new riders—necessary for it to become a success—a large majority of those new riders will therefore need to like the Van Hool riding experience. If too many riders stay away from BRT because they don’t like the Van Hools, BRT will end up being the kind of East Bay public project disaster that will remain with us the rest of our lives, much like, say, the Raiders deal. Prudence dictates, therefore, that we take this process slowly and examine it carefully before we move forward with BRT approval.

But at least where it involves Van Hool, there is a considerable body of evidence that AC Transit has not moved forward carefully at all. Instead, in the Van Hool dealings I have observed and reported on in the last year, the district has too often acted like the octopus, throwing up an obscuring cloud of ink in the water whenever thoughtful and serious questions are raised.

I was not covering AC Transit during the time the original Van Hool contract was negotiated and signed, and I don’t know enough about that contract to have formed an opinion. But last year, I did cover AC Transit’s odd 16-bus NABI-Van Hool trade-and-buy deal, and that transaction raised serious doubts about how AC Transit was doing business with the Belgian bus manufacturer. Those articles were originally published in The Berkeley Daily Planet; they are available on the Planet’s website, as well as collected on my personal website at

Under the deal—too complicated to explain in detail in this column—AC Transit proposed to sell 16 of its North American Bus Institute (NABI) manufactured buses to the American Van Hool distributor, the buses eventually to be bought by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for use in the Gulf Coast, with the buses to be replaced by newer Van Hools. One of the complications was that AC Transit wanted the federal government to put aside any financial penalty to the agency for getting rid of the NABI buses years short of their federally-mandated street life. The federal government refused, and in one of his articles this week (“Thwarting Buy American Laws to Buy Belgian”), Mr. Gammon quotes AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez as saying that the NABI-Van Hool swap “didn’t pan out.”

The problem was, there was always a problem with the NABI-Van Hool bus swap “panning out” that was evident from the beginning. As I reported in my Daily Planet stories, while Mr. Fernandez repeatedly told AC Transit board members that the bus swap was a “no-brainer” and a good deal for the district, in the “Fiscal Impact” section of his recommending memos in both March and April of 2007, the General Manager did not disclose a bottom-line figure, instead writing that “the fiscal impact will be determined by the proceeds of the sale” and associated costs.

The AC Transit Board of Directors, therefore, went in blind, not knowing what the NABI-Van Hool transfer might save or cost the district. A majority of the board members went along with the deal anyway, an act of public irresponsibility which is not a good precedent if we are supposed to trust the board and AC Transit management in the BRT project.

I ran into other red flags during my coverage of the NABI-Van Hool bus swap.

As I noted earlier in this column, the success of BRT is predicated on the rapid transit line attracting new riders. If significant rider disaffection with the Van Hool buses keeps too many new riders from using the new system, its finances will collapse.

You can find passionate riders on both sides of the Van Hool issue—many say they love the buses, many say they hate them. Let us give these riders the benefit of the doubt, and say that all of them are giving their honest opinions. The question is, how, then, can AC Transit decide whether public opinion over the Van Hools would be a drag or a benefit to its proposed BRT?

A prudent transit agency—concerned with the interests of their own agency rather than its “partnernship” with an outside bus manufacturing company (as Mr. Fernandez once described the AC Transit-Van Hool relationship)—would have long ago hired an independent, outside polling firm to conduct a bus rider public opinion survey. During last year’s debates over the NABI-Van Hool swap, General Manager Fernandez often noted that AC Transit did such a study, and that opinion was favorable to the Van Hools. The rider opinion study was done, however, just as the Van Hools were originally being introduced in the district, and before riders had enough experience with them to form their final opinions.

It’s past time for the district, if it wants the general public to have confidence in its decisions, to find an independent agency to conduct such a survey. How else can the district management make informed recommendations and the district board make informed decisions on future bus purchases?

Meanwhile, in the second of Mr. Gammon’s three Van Hool articles, “Belgium Or Bust”, a quote from former AC Transit Board President Greg Harper shows that opposition to Van Hool buses does not necessarily mean opposition to BRT.

“Harper,” Mr. Gammon writes, “who is … a strong proponent of BRT [emphasis added], said in an interview that the Van Hools enjoyed such overwhelming support on the board that he would have lost his ability to get things done had he publicly opposed them.” Mr. Gammon goes on to say that when asked if newly requested modifications of Van Hool buses—making them closer in internal design to buses from other manufacturers—“meant that buying the Belgian buses was a waste, [Mr. Harper] responded: ‘I'd say pretty much it was.’”

Were the AC Transit Van Hool bus purchases a waste, and do they threaten public support for the district’s rapid transit plans, however those plans may eventually take shape?

It would seem like the many vocal and passionate BRT supporters in the area might want an answer to these questions. It would also seem that East Bay taxpayers—who foot the AC Transit subsidy bills but rarely pay attention to district board activities—might want to know as well. AC Transit needs to do better—much, much better—in answering. It does not mean that you are an opponent of public transit if you’re asking these questions. In fact, the supporters of public transit ought to be the first ones in line doing the asking. Mr. Gammon’s recent articles take us a step further in shedding light on what, so far, has been largely a shadowy public finance transaction.

I am a supporter of public transit, and I am a supporter of the development of some sort of rapid transit system in the East Bay that bridges the gap between AC Transit’s current inter-city bus system and BART’s fixed-rail intra-city transit line. Whether or not ACT Transit’s BRT proposal would fill that need remains to be seen. I am willing to listen. But I am not yet convinced.

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