The Ongoing Story Of The Growing "Partnership" Between The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District And The Belgian Manufacturing Company




Berkeley Daily Planet
February 9, 2007
By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Despite heated opposition from representatives of both bus drivers and the bus riding community, the Board of Directors of Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District voted unanimously last week to go forward with a contract that would put 50 new revised models of the controversial Van Hool 40-foot buses on East Bay streets.

“We’re pretty excited about the 40-foot buses,” AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez told the seven board members and an audience of skeptical members of the public. “We believe it’s the best bus we’ve ever had.”

But East Bay community activist Joyce Roy disagreed, telling board members that she had “hoped that the board would focus on attracting new riders, but these [Van Hool] buses are discouraging to new riders. If Muni put them on the streets in San Francisco with all of their middle class riders, the outcry would be so great, they’d be off the streets in a week. But in Oakland, so many of your riders are disabled and the elderly who have no choice but to ride the bus, you can get by with it.”

Following the meeting, Roy referred to the buses as “Van Hells” and called the decision to move forward with the Van Hool contract “par for the course for a district and a board that regularly ignores the wishes of the public.”

AC Transit currently operates 100 40-foot Van Hools, along with 63 60-footers and 12 30-footers manufactured by the same company.

AC Transit staff members promised that the new buses, now being built in the prototype stage by Belgium-based bus manufacturer Van Hool, will have significant improvements from the current 40-footers, including a reduction from three doors to two, and structural changes which staff members said would provide for a “smoother ride.”

No firm date has been given for the delivery of the prototype. A recent memo from General Manager Fernandez only said that “sometime later this year the prototype is anticipated to be shipped to the District for testing in our service area.”

The contract also carries an option for AC Transit to purchase 1,500 more Van Hools in the event the first 50 prove acceptable.

Last Wednesday morning’s vote was not directly on the Van Hool contract itself, but on changes in the funding mechanism related to the purchase. Fernandez said, however, that because of the anticipated funding changes, the contract signed in Belgium last month included a clause that the contract was “subject to board approval,” and said that the board had the option of postponing the contract, if it wished.

But Fernandez urged moving forward with the Van Hool purchase, however, saying that suspending the already-signed contract for the reconfigured Van Hools “would send a bad message to Van Hool.” The General Manager added that when he and other AC Transit staff members traveled to Belgium in early January to sign the contract, “we pushed them on completing the prototype, and they had already begun soldering metal” by the time the AC Transit staff was leaving.

Board Vice President Rebecca Kaplan (At-Large) spoke in favor of going forward with the contract, saying that “while I prefer the 30-foot buses and everybody I’ve talked to prefers the 30-foot buses,” the plans for the new 40-foot Van Hools “took into account what we liked in the 30-footers and didn’t like in the [current] 40 footers.” Kaplan also said she was persuaded by the fact that staff members promised that “minor modifications” can still be made to the bus design. “The new prototype will come months before mass production, so we can try it out and ask people to suggestion further modifications before the rest are manufactured,” Kaplan said.

But that did not satisfy the small crowd of bus riders and activists gathered at the Wednesday morning meeting.

Doug Buchwald of Berkeley, the organizer of the “save the oaks” campaign at UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium, who said he rides the 51 bus every day, called the original Van Hool purchase “the worst mistake ever made by this district. It seems like that decision was made by people who don’t ride buses.” (That brought an angry retort by several board members, some of whom said they ride buses either regularly or exclusively.)

And Bonnie Hughes, another Berkeley resident, said that “I used to be a dedicated bus rider, but I suffer from bus rage now. The whole world is turned upside down. We don’t want war, and the war escalates. We hate these [Van Hool] buses, and you buy more. Do you hate your bus riders? I’m really upset.”

And Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192 Recording Secretary and Executive Board member David Lyons, an AC Transit driver, called the Van Hools “the poorest bus the district has purchased in 27 years. They have an unstable ride and make the drivers prone to injury. A lot of us are hurting from driving these buses. The district is going to face an increase in workers’ compensation in the future because of them. Did anybody do a survey of the drivers before you decided to go ahead with the new purchase? It would be very valuable to get our input.”

Lyons’ question provoked an exchange between AC Transit Board President Greg Harper (Ward Two—Emeryville, Piedmont, and portions of Berkeley) and General Manager Fernandez in which Fernandez admitted that AC Transit has taken no “formal” driver survey of the Van Hool buses, and he and Harper revealed that they had both taken informal surveys, with completely opposite results.

“A majority [of the drivers] say they like the Van Hools, but the passengers didn’t,” Fernandez said.

But Harper countered that “every time I take the bus, I ask the drivers how they like the [Van Hools]. Over time I’ve talked to between 12 and 20 drivers, and I’ve yet to find one who liked them. They generally say that if the passengers don’t like the buses, they don’t like them either.”

Referring to complaints that the Van Hool design is prone to causing passenger falls, Harper said that for four to five months he has been asking staff members to provide him with “on-board falls by bus type, but I haven’t gotten it yet. I’m troubled about making a decision without having that information.”

Fernandez said that a passenger survey of the existing Van Hools has not been done since “early on.”

But Board member Rocky Fernandez (Ward 4—San Leandro, Castro Valley, San Lorenzo, and Ashland)—not to be confused with General Manager Rick Fernandez—said that he had taken an informal survey of the Van Hools himself. “A lot of the younger riders do like the new buses,” he said. “They like the European style.”

The Van Hool Connection