With AC Transit rapidly expanding its purchase of Belgian-based Van Hool buses, the senior vice president of a Bay Area bus manufacturing company is refuting a key reason why AC Transit officials say the European-manufactured buses are more desirable than American-made ones.
At an AC Transit District Board of Directors meeting earlier this month, district Executive Director Rick Fernandez said that the European Van Hools are preferable to American buses because Van Hool “is willing to make changes in the design of their buses” when requested. In response to rider and driver complaints, and board and staff concerns, Van Hool is currently making several design changes to 50 40-foot buses recently ordered by AC Transit.
That willingness to make modifications to its bus design “is different from American bus manufacturers,” Fernandez told board members. “They just make a bus, and you have to take it or leave it.”
That is flat-out not true, according to Brian Macleod, senior vice president of the Hayward-based Gillig Corporation, which advertises itself as the second largest bus manufacturer in the country.
“Our transit buses are a custom-built product,” Macleod said last week in a telephone interview. “We get a list of specifications from the customer, and that’s what we build from.”
Included in the typical specifications requested by purchasers of their buses, Macleod explained, are such things as the number of seats and their configuration, the type of air conditioning to be installed or no air conditioning at all, and the number, style, and tint of windows. In addition, he said, some transit agencies request wheelchair access for both the front and rear doors, which he said Gillig accommodates.
Macleod said the type of specifications Gillig is able to comply with “has to be within reason, of course. We manufacture our buses to American transit standards and to American road conditions. Within those parameters, we are flexible.”
At the April 4 board meeting in which Fernandez made his assertion about the inflexibility of American bus manufacturers, the board authorized the sale of 10 more 40-foot North American Bus Institute (NABI) buses five years short of their federally recommended 12-year life, and their replacement with 10 comparable buses from Van Hool.
That brings to 20 the total number of 40-foot NABIs the board has authorized to trade in for Van Hools, half of the NABI fleet currently owned by AC Transit. The transfer was approved at the April 4 meeting on a 4-1-2 vote, with Board President Greg Harper (Ward II, Emeryville, Piedmont, and portions of Berkeley and Oakland) voting no, and Board Vice President Rebecca Kaplan (At Large) and Ward III Board Member Elsa Ortiz (Alameda and portions of Oakland and San Leandro) abstaining.
AC Transit recently renewed a five-year contract with Van Hool to purchase 50 new 40-foot buses, with an option to purchase 1,500 more. The 20 additional buses bring the authorized purchase of Van Hools to 70. Prototypes of the new buses are currently being manufactured. AC Transit currently operates 175 Van Hools out of the district’s total fleet of 682 buses.
Executive Director Fernandez told board members at the April 4 meeting that “when you have the chance to turn over your fleet with a new product, it’s a no-brainer.”
But key information concerning the NABI-Van Hool swap, including bottom-line figures detailing how much it will either cost or save the district over the long run, was not presented in Fernandez’ two memos recommending the trade. In his first memo, issued March 21, Fernandez said only that “the proposed early [NABI] bus replacement will result in a $1.2 million savings to the region,” but no figures were included to tell how that savings would occur.
The two memos do not provide a line-item budget for the transfer, only background narratives that are sparse on figures.
Also, because the NABI buses were bought, in part, with federal funds that were based on a 12-year use life by the district, the swap involves a complicated financial transaction in which the federal interest in the remaining five years of the NABIs must be approved for transfer to another AC Transit asset. It is unclear from documents presented by AC Transit staff to the board and public how that federal asset transfer will ultimately affect the cost of the swap to AC Transit.
The lack of information was one of the reasons Board President Harper said he did not want to commit himself to continuing approval for these types of swaps.
“I trust the general manager that he’s getting more than these [NABI] buses are worth,” the former Emeryville mayor said in a telephone interview. “And for the small amount of numbers we are trading right now, I can see some board members wanting to get that money up front.”
But asked if the board has been provided a detailed analysis of the full cost of the trade-in, including comparing the projected maintenance costs of the NABIs over the final five years of their 12-year life with the cost of purchasing new buses five years early, Harper said no. “I imagine that we have a NABI maintenance schedule and the projected costs, but that wasn’t provided to the board.” Harper said that “if we’re going to [trade in old buses before their 12-year life] on a regular basis, we’ll need those figures.”
And board member Ortiz said that she abstained on the NABI-Van Hool trade because of the recent community complaints voiced about the Van Hool buses. “I’m waiting to see the modifications that Van Hool is making on the new buses.”
In addition, as a new board member elected last November, Ortiz said, “I am familiarizing myself with the history of the Van Hool purchase” as well as the details of the NABI-Van Hool swap. “I need to understand what is going on. I understand the need to replace buses before they burn out, but I’m still learning about this issue.”