A small but spirited group of AC Transit bus riders brought their case against the contract for new Van Hool buses to the Metropolitan Transit Commission this week, and got what they called a “surprisingly” more attentive and favorable hearing than they expected.
Led by San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, several commissioners sharply questioned AC Transit’s decision to continue a contract to purchase 50 buses from the Belgian-based Van Hool company in the wake of testimony from several riders against the Van Hool buses AC Transit currently owns and operates.
Ammiano said he found the testimony of Van Hool opponents “compelling,” and asked AC Transit Deputy General Manager Al Gleich, “but you are saying something contrary. How do you reconcile those two positions? Are you saying that these people are lying? Have you accompanied these people on their attempts to navigate the buses? With all due respect, you just blew off everything that they said. I’m not comfortable with this. It’s a he-said, she-said situation, and it would be incumbent on this commission to find out what’s going on.”
And former San Mateo Mayor Sue Lempert, representing the cities of San Mateo County on the commission, said that “while on the one hand, I don’t think the commission should get involved in telling a transit agency what equipment to purchase, when you get this many people coming to you with complaints, you just shouldn’t go back and say business as usual.” Calling the protesters “pretty savvy,” Lempert said that “after all, what we’re trying to do is to convince people to ride public transit.”
And Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, recently elected as MTC vice chair, asked to see statistics on the new buses from AC Transit. “I’ve never been a fan of buying buses in Belgium when we have Gillig down the street,” Haggerty said, referring to the Hayward-based bus manufacturers. “I’m in favor of ‘Buy America.’”
“I’m sort of in a state of shock,” Van Hool opponent Joyce Roy later said by telephone. “This is the first time we’ve been listened to and responded to. I think this is a good start.”
The Metropolitan Transit Commission, made up of representatives of elected government bodies in the greater Bay Area, has no direct authority over AC Transit purchases. However, MTC is the funneling agency for federal and state transit funding in the Bay Area. In addition, MTC provides approval for the complicated government funding swapping scheme that allows AC Transit to free up enough money to purchase the buses.
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was recently elected to the MTC to represent Alameda County’s cities.
Early last month, the AC Transit Board of Directors voted to move forward with a contract with Van Hool for 50 new 40-foot buses, with an option for the transit district to purchase 1,500 more. The new 40 footers are modified versions of the Van Hool buses currently operated by the district, based on engineering changes recommended by the district, including a reduction from three doors to two, and structural changes which staff members said would provide for a “smoother ride” and a “significant improvement” over the current Van Hool 40 footers. The new buses are currently being built in the prototype stage.
AC Transit currently operates 100 40-foot Van Hools, along with 63 60-footers and 12 30-footers manufactured by the same company.
Many of the same community dissenters—mostly elderly and disabled riders—who spoke against the Van Hool contract at the AC Transit meeting in early February brought those same concerns to the MTC meeting on Wednesday morning at MTC headquarters near the Lake Merritt BART station.
The most dramatic testimony at public comment was provided by AC Transit rider Lisa Bloomer of Alameda, who came to the speakers podium using a white walking cane and telling commissioners that she is “visually impaired” and going blind. Bloomer said that she has measured the height of the first step of the Van Hool buses, and said it is 11 inches.
“That high,” she said, struggling to raise her foot a foot off the floor to demonstrate what that meant. “I’ve fallen more than a dozen times trying to get on these buses. I call them death traps.”
Bloomer also said that she’d seen “numerous people propelled ten feet and hitting their heads inside these buses” while the Van Hool buses were in motion. “I ask you to freeze AC Transit funds,” she said. “People are getting injured daily.”
Interrupted repeatedly by hoots and comments from the Van Hool protesters, AC Transit Deputy Executive Director Gleich disputed those claims, saying that the number of “falls and injuries on the Van Hool buses is not higher than on the older buses. It’s probably lower.” He called the Van Hools “substantially safer. We have listened.”
When Gleich said that two earlier rider surveys of Van Hools showed a 75 percent popularity rating and added that “I’m sure if you’d do it again today you’d get the same result,” one of the protesters shouted out “do it!”
Gleich also said he took exception to the assertion that the Van Hools were not safe for the disabled, in particular.
“I am disabled,” he said. “I have been active in the disabled community. The new Van Hools have better accessibility for wheelchairs than other buses.”
Gleich, who is ambulatory, has a visible disability in one leg. He agreed with Bates’ suggestion that one of the new buses be brought to the MTC so that commissioners could inspect it, and also agreed to a request from commissioners that the MTC be provided with information on the number of seniors and disabled in the earlier AC Transit survey of the Van Hools.
Bates said following the meeting that he was unfamiliar with the Van Hool buses, and needed to inspect them before giving his opinion on the issue.