Public Comment

Commentary: AC Transit’s Obsession With Van Hool Busses

By Joyce Roy
Tuesday February 27, 2007

The Special AC Transit board meeting J. Douglas Allen-Taylor reported on (Feb. 9) was practically a secret meeting. Luckily, two reporters came. The other one, Erik Nelson, from ANG Newspapers, has a blog: He says on his blog, “Van Hool, where have you been all my life (or short career as a blogger)? This hitherto ignored issue has become the biggest thing to hit the blog since its inception!” You can make it even bigger by logging on. 

AC Transit gets very little public scrutiny. Can you imagine the outcry if BART, or Caltrain or Muni tried to put in seating that requires a rock-climbing certificate?  

In fact, AC Transit has finally acknowledged the barrier these buses present for attracting seniors and the disabled as riders. So what is their solution? To purchase buses which don’t have such barriers? No, it is to go to senior homes, etc., and train people “how to step up the one foot riser, turn and place their fanny on the seat.” (Does this means hiring a lot of mobility trainers?) 

When staff was asked wouldn’t it be easier to purchase buses that don’t require training riders? The reply: “The board voted four years ago that they would only buy Van Hool buses.” These buses only went into service in June 2003, so this once and forever decision was made even before the buses had real battleground experience. 

Management has tried to get support for the buses through various fabrications. They claim to have a survey that shows 80 percent of the riders like the buses. (A small detail: The survey was done in November 2002 and the buses began service in June 2003!) A survey on the No. 51 line was intended to show that wheelchair loading was faster on the Van Hool than the low-floor NABI, the buses made in Alabama liked by riders and drivers. (A small detail: There are no low-floor NABIs on No. 51 line, only high-floor NABIs!)  

Another fabrication is the “Bus of the Year” 2003, 2004, etc., decal on all the Van Hool buses. Europe does give out “Bus of the Year” awards in odd numbered years. Only the 40-foot, three-door bus received such an award and only for performance, not seating arrangement. I’ve even seen a “Bus of the Year 2004” on a 601 articulated bus, easily the Worst Bus in the World. The irony is that changes have been made in the new 40-foot buses, like two doors and greater wheel span because of poor performance. 

One board member reported she heard some young riders say they liked the buses and suggested “maybe we can attract younger riders.” (And let the elderly use paratransit?) 

This same board member asked if some changes could be made. The new 40-foot bus, as well as the new 30-foot ones in service, has more floor level seats but the same bottleneck at the entry because bench seating was not located there.  

Although a proto-type is scheduled for delivery in December, nothing except minor changes can be made because, according to Kenneth Scheidig, General Counsel, it would “make Van Hool unhappy.” (If riders are unhappy that’s OK because, AC Transit is a bus-purchasing agency not a rider-servicing agency.) 

Furthermore, General Counsel informed the board they had already given approval for purchase of the 50 Van Hools last April and the bus’ frames are already under construction. This was news to the board. 

So it seems not only are riders, drivers and mechanics out of the loop, so is the board. In fact, the board is not even privy to the contracts; they only have summaries to rely on and do not know the actual costs. Despite this and the fact that the three new members didn’t even seem to have ridden the buses, the vote was unanimous. 

So how are they being paid for? Transit agencies have three pots-of-money, one limited to operational expenditures, one limited to capital costs and one that is flexible. Because funding for operational costs are harder to acquire, most agencies use the flexible funds for operations. The biggest source for capital costs are federal funds but they can only be used for domestically produced vehicles. So AC Transit has had to ask MTC to help with, as one board member described it, “creative fund swaps.” 

So are they dipping into funds that could be used for operations? Could this explain why as AC Transit receives more funding, it cuts back on service and increases fares? Could this and the fact that riders hate these buses, explain why, while ridership in other transit agencies is increasing, AC Transit’s local ridership is down. Even ridership on the much-touted 72R, the precursor of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service, is down. 

The goal of the BRT is to attract new riders. Wouldn’t a bus people like help? And because of the time it takes people to get seated it will be BST, Bus Slow Transit. 

Remember the ads for the parcel tax in 2004, which pleaded that funds were needed for the elderly and disabled? They were seen getting into a Van Hool bus but it didn’t show them struggling to get into a seat. In fact, that parcel tax gave AC Transit funds that added a shell to their shell game that enables them to continue to buy buses that insult the elderly and disabled. 

And when the FTA, Federal Transit Agency, doesn’t fund a bus, they have no control over its quality or ADA compliance, as riders who complained to the FTA discovered.  

An MTC commissioner asked why they are importing buses. In the response from Rick Fernandez, General Manager, he claimed “the local manufacturer decided not to submit a bid.” How could they, the GM stacked the cards against domestic suppliers by requiring buses with three doors, which were not manufactured in the USA. The GM now realizes the three doors were not necessary and are, in fact, a problem. But the new buses still were not put out to bid. On some routes there are low-floor buses made in America that get good reviews from riders and drivers and don’t incur the cost of transatlantic shipping. So the commissioner’s question remains unanswered. 

Isn’t there a legal obligation for a public agency to put such purchases out to bid? One must always be suspicious of sole source purchases but one must particularly be suspicious of an obsession to continue purchasing a product that has proved to be such a failure. 

Who benefits from this Van Hool deal? It certainly isn’t the riders or drivers. As one driver put it, “when an agency keeps on buying buses the riders and drivers hate, there is definitely something going on.” 


Joyce Roy can be contacted at