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




Berkeley Daily Planet
March 30, 2007
By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

AC Transit bus riders and drivers seeking to halt the Transit District’s purchase of more Van Hool buses got a distinctly chillier reception this week from the Metropolitan Transit Commission than they did when they first brought the issue to the MTC earlier this month.

San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who two weeks ago expressed concern over the purchase, said Wednesday “it sounds like AC Transit is taking the complaints seriously. Any effort the district makes to improve the situation, I will appreciate, and I will be satisfied.”

And Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who had earlier said that he was not in favor of purchasing from the Belgian-based Van Hool when there was an American bus manufacturer—Gillig—headquarterd in Hayward, sharply lectured the AC Transit dissenters that their proper forum was not the MTC, but the AC Transit Board of Directors.

“We don’t control the bus routes, and we don’t control AC Transit,” Haggerty said. “I hope these people are as engaged with the AC Transit Board as they are with us. That’s where the decisions are made. Those are your elected representatives. Because AC Transit is in the district I represent, I almost feel like I have to apologize to my fellowing commissioners for having to deal with issues that should properly be before AC Transit.”

That was a far cry from the March 2 MTC meeting, when Van Hool dissenters said they were surprised by the favorable commission reception to their concerns.

“The commissioners chickened out,” Oakland architect and citizen activist Joyce Roy said following the meeting. Roy is one of the leaders of the ad hoc group protesting the Van Hool purchase.

After the March 2 meeting, MTC commissioners put the AC Transit bus purchase on Wednesday’s agenda so that the transit district could have the opportunity to respond in writing to the complaints.

AC Transit has already signed a contract with the Belgian-based Van Hool company to purchase 50 new 40-foot buses and last week the AC Transit Board of Directors approved a staff request to trade in 10 of the district’s currently operating buses five years ahead of their scheduled retirement date in order to purchase 10 more Van Hools. The new buses, which will be modified versions of the 40-foot Van Hools currently operated by AC Transit, are still being built in prototype.

Because of a complicated funding formula for the buses involving switching federal and local money, the purchase must be approved by the Metropolitan Transit Commission.

The MTC plans and coordinates transit policy in nine counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as funnelling state and federal money to the transit districts within their area. The 19-member governing commission is made up of members representing various governing bodies within the nine county area. Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty represents Alameda County and serves as vice chair. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates represents the cities of Alameda County.

A small group of AC Transit riders—many of them elderly or disabled—and company drivers are seeking to stop the Van Hool purchase, saying that the current Van Hools are unacceptable, and the improvements in the newly designed buses will not make them much better.

This week, AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez wrote the MTC saying that the concerns over the Van Hools expressed at the MTC meeting earlier this month “have been expressed by most of these same people to the AC Transit Board of Directors and to AC Transit staff. As a result of these complaints and more than four years of experience in operating these buses, modifications in the design of the buses have been made that address the specific complaints made before your commission.”

Fernandez listed what he said were five design modifications in the new Van Hool purchase that will address rider and driver complaints, including having fewer seats that require a step-up from the floor platform, widening the front door entry “by several inches,” adding grab handles and handholds for passengers who have to stand, and adding more stop-request buttons.

The AC Transit General Manager listed rear-facing seats in its list of design modifications, but from Fernandez’ letter, the district does not appear to have made any modifications to the several seats in the Van Hools that face away from the direction the buses are traveling, with some in a four-seat cluster that face each other. Instead, Fernandez wrote that “it is true some passengers do no like rear-facing seats; it is also true that there are many who do like them. These seats allow us to maximize the seating on the bus. Facing seats are liked by many people, especially those traveling in groups, especially parents with small children.”

AC Transit officials maintain that the Van Hool buses are generally liked by AC Transit riders.

And Jaimie Levin, AC Transit Director of Marketing and Alternative Fuels Policy, told commissioners that “we put a tremendous amount of work into the Van Hool buses. These are the best buses AC Transit has purchased in its history. We do not bury our heads in the sand. We’ve heard the issues raised. And future buses will have more of these issues addressed.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, AC Transit made two of the existing Van Hools available outside the MTC headquarters near the Lake Merritt BART station in Oakland for Commissioners to inspect. But during her testimony before the Commission, Roy complained that “somehow AC Transit managed not to bring their low-floor [American-made] NABI buses, which we think are good, so that you can see the difference.” Roy added that better buses than the European-made Van Hools are available from American manufacturers. “American-made buses are what the European bus makers are copying,” she said. “We are the leaders.”

Roy said her loosely-organized group would continue to monitor and oppose the Van Hool purchase.

The Van Hool Connection