AC Transit Delays Decision on Purchase Of Controversial Van Hool Buses

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 09:50:00 AM

In what may be a sign of growing political sensitivity over AC Transit’s controversial relationship with the Belgian-based bus manufacturing company Van Hool, transit directors last week failed to approve a request by AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez for a no-bid contract to purchase 19 60-foot, articulated Van Hool buses. 

The vote was 3-3 at the May 14 meeting. Directors Elsa Ortiz (Ward 3-Alameda and portions of Oakland and San Leandro), Greg Harper (Ward 2-Emeryville, Piedmont, and portions of Oakland and Berkeley), and Rocky Fernandez (Ward 4-Castro Valley, San Lorenzo, Ashland, and portions of San Leandro and Hayward) voted no; board president Chris Peeples (At Large) and directors Joe Wallace (Ward 1-El Sobrante, San Pablo, Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany, and Kensington and a portion of Berkeley) and Jeff Davis (Ward 5-Fremont, Newark, and a portion of Hayward) voted yes.  

Board Vice President Rebecca Kaplan (At Large), a candidate in the June 3 election for the Oakland City Council At Large seat, left the board meeting early and did not vote.  

Board members asked that the purchase request be placed on the May 28 board meeting agenda so that it could be considered again with the full board present. 

The decision came a little more than a week before AC Transit’s May 21 hearing on a proposed new across-the-board fare increase, held at 4 p.m. at Oakland City Hall. 

AC Transit’s policy of replacing a large percentage of its current bus fleet—made by a variety of manufacturers—with Van Hools has come under criticism from a coalition of drivers and riders, many of whom complain that the ride on the Van Hools does not compare favorably with buses manufactured by other companies. 

At Wednesday’s meeting, General Manager Fernandez said that in order to meet the board’s Fleet Compensation Plan goal of 101 60-foot, articulated buses (two section buses joined by an accordion-style mid-section), he was requesting that the district retire 30 12-year-old buses manufactured by the New Flyer corporation and in their place purchase the 19 Van Hools.  

“As a result of this recommended procurement,” Fernandez wrote in his memo advising the board, “the district’s entire articulated fleet will be from one bus manufacturer,” meaning Van Hool. 

The 60-foot, articulated buses are expected to be the backbone of AC Transit’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line, which the district wants to run in set-aside middle-of-the-road bus lanes down East 14th Street, International Boulevard, and Telegraph Avenue between either Hayward or San Leandro and the southern edge of the UC Berkeley campus. 

The 60-foot, articulated bus swap was a separate proposal from the district’s earlier approved purchase of 60 modified 40-foot Van Hool buses, swapping them for buses made by the North American Bus Institute (NABI) that the district is retiring five years early. The prototype for the modified 40-footers is expected to be delivered to the district next month.