AC Transit ‘Partnership’ with Bus Manufacturer Questioned

By J. Douglas
Friday May 04, 2007

An assertion this week by the general manager of AC Transit that the East Bay bus transportation agency was in a “partnership” with Belgian bus manufacturer Van Hool led transit board of directors members to say that the statement made them “concerned” and might send a signal to other bus manufacturers that the district wasn’t interested in buying their buses.  

The exchange occurred during this week’s AC Transit Board of Directors meeting during a discussion of a proposal to enter into an agreement with Van Hool distributor ABC Bus Companies for a one-year exchange of one of AC Transit’s still-under-construction 40 foot Van Hool buses for a Van Hool cruiser bus owned by ABC. 

AC Transit owns several of the larger cruiser buses built by MCI Corporation for use on its cross-bay line. Under the exchange, ABC would get the new 40-foot-buses demonstration purposes, while AC Transit would get to test out the Van Hool cruiser under normal operation conditions. 

In his report to the board, General Manager Rick Fernandez said that if the exchange was agreed upon he would put the Van Hool cruiser onto regular AC Transit routes where cruisers are used. 

But Ward 4 Board of Directors member Rocky Fernandez (representing San Leandro, Castro Valley, San Lorenzo, Ashland, and portions of Hayward) said he was worried the use of the Van Hool cruiser “gives the wrong impression. I’m a little bit nervous that we’re using the Van Hool to help them with their advertising.” 

In reply, General Manager Fernandez said that “we have a different relationship with this manufacturer. It’s more like a partnership.” 

AC Transit bus purchases are governed by state federal law, and require a competitive and open bidding process. A “partnership” with a single bus manufacturer would appear, on the surface, to violate those policies. 

“I’m troubled to hear you say that,” Ward 5 Director Jeff Davis (representing Fremont, Newark, and portions of Hayward) then said. “That concerns me. I’m concerned about the perception that our interests coincide completely with Van Hool’s. We are the purchaser. They are the supplier. We are going to be going through a competitive process on purchasing new cruisers in the future, and I don’t want this to send a message to other suppliers that they need not apply.” 

And Board Vice President Rebecca Kaplan (At-Large) added, “I wouldn’t be comfortable with any language in the agreement that implies we are shutting out other competitors, or implies a partnership. I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not an endorsement.” 

General Manager Fernandez said, “Maybe it was semantics when I talked about a partnership,” and board members eventually unanimously approved the exchange agreement with the provision that it make plain there would be no commitment or obligation to purchase Van Hool cruisers. 

AC Transit operates 682 buses made by several manufacturers, but in recent years has been buying exclusively from Van Hool. The District recently renewed a five-year contract with Van Hool to purchase 50 new 40-foot buses, with an option to purchase 1,500 more. 

In addition, the district recently entered into agreements with Van Hool American distributor ABC to trade up to 20 of the district’s 40-foot North American Bus Institute (NABI) buses, half of the district’s NABI fleet, for a comparable number of the new 40 foot Van Hools. The district has come under public criticism from a small number of riders and drivers about the Van Hools.