AC Transit Directors Slow Drive Toward Van Hools

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday June 27, 2008 - 09:00:00 PM

The AC Transit Board of Directors temporarily put the brakes on the district’s recent push to transform a large portion of its fleet into buses made by Belgian bus manufacturer Van Hool, rejecting a request by District Manager Rick Fernandez to replace 30 retiring 60-foot buses made by New Flyer with 19 new buses made by Van Hool. 

Instead, on a 2-4-1 vote (Chris Peeples and Jeff Davis yes, Greg Harper, Elsa Ortiz, Rocky Fernandez, and Rebecca Kaplan no, Joe Wallace abstaining), the seven-member board voted to put the contract for the 19 new buses up for competitive bidding. 

It remains to be seen whether Wednesday’s vote was merely a symbolic response to political pressure and media and public attention—three board members are up for re-election in November—or whether AC Transit’s love affair with Van Hools is actually coming to an end. The decision does not mean a rejection of the Van Hool buses, but only that the Belgian bus manufacturer must now bid competitively on the 19-bus purchase in competition with other manufacturers for the first time since its original contract with AC Transit in 2002. 

Prior to the voting, AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez, who has led the district’s turnover of its bus purchasing to Van Hool, and has called AC Transit’s relationship with the bus manufacturer a “partnership,” warned board members that not approving the Van Hool purchase is “... probably the worst decision we have ever made...To have 19 buses out of our entire articulated fleet supplied by a different manufacturer, needing different parts, is insane. It makes absolutely no sense.” (The general manager should not be confused with Rocky Fernandez, the board member.) 

But also speaking to board members just before the vote, Oakland architect and public transit advocate Joyce Roy said that the Van Hool decision was “a sort of test to show riders that you are fiscally responsible and will listen to them. I hope you make a decision that makes it easy for me to convince people to go out in November and vote for the parcel tax.” 

In the last several weeks, AC Transit has been moving forward with a proposal to put on the November ballot renewal of a parcel tax that provides supplemental funds for the transit district, which anticipates cutting staff and service sometime in the future if additional funds cannot be found. 

Roy, who has announced that she will be running against AC Transit Board President Chris Peeples in the November election for one of the board’s two at-large seats, called the decision “a victory for riders” in an email announcing the board vote. Roy has led opposition to the Van Hool buses. 

There is considerable controversy over the popularity of the Van Hools. AC Transit staff representatives and some board members have said that the European-style buses are popular with both passengers and drivers, while some drivers—and a vocal group of AC Transit bus riders—have been loudly critical of the buses. The Van Hool buses and the relationship between AC Transit and the Belgian bus manufacturer have been the subject of a series of critical articles both in the Berkeley Daily Planet and in the East Bay Express. 

Wednesday night’s Van Hool decision was a carryover from the May 14 meeting, in which the board deadlocked 3-3 (Peeples, Wallace, and Davis yes, Harper, Ortiz, Fernandez no) on the proposed purchase. Kaplan, who is running for the At Large Oakland City Council seat, had been present for part of the May 14 meeting, but left for a campaign event before the Van Hool vote that night. 

In his recommendation to the board for the proposed Van Hool purchase, Fernandez wrote in his staff memo that “As a result of this recommended procurement, the District’s entire articulated fleet will be from one bus manufacturer,” Van Hool. 

The 60-foot articulated buses (known by their trademark accordion-type joint that joins the two separate halves of the buses together) 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 E. 14th Street, International Boulevard, and Telegraph Avenue between either Hayward or San Leandro and the southern edge of the UC Berkeley campus.  

General Manager Fernandez said Wednesday before the board vote that the $547,739 per bus proposed purchase price for the 19 Van Hools is “fair and reasonable,” and rejected assertions that comparable buses by other manufacturers could be purchased for a cheaper price. In addition, Fernandez said that if Van Hool eventually won the contract after competitive bidding, it is likely that inflation over the time of the extended bidding and contract award process would drive up Van Hool’s price. 

But while board members gave widely varying reasons for rejecting the Van Hool proposal Wednesday night, at least three members said that a lack of detailed information provided by staff factored into their decision. 

Kaplan said, “I don’t feel comfortable with our internal analysis of how many articulated [60-foot] buses we need. I see too many ‘artics’ on routes that clearly don’t need them. I’m not convinced that we need as many articulated buses.”  

Ortiz said that she wanted to open a bid for the bus purchase “because we need to make an informed decision,” and Harper said that because of criticism by the public and in the media of past Van Hool purchases, “we need to have something to hand out to people that tells in detail the true cost of this purchase.” Harper said such a “true cost” analysis was not currently present in detail in the staff analysis of the proposed Van Hool purchase. 

Other board members felt that the cost issue of the purchase had been “adequately addressed” (Jeff Davis), and some used the vote as an opportunity to take shots at the media and citizen opponents of the Van Hools. 

Wallace said the he was “tired of the crap in the press and the private vendetta of some bus riders about the Van Hools. It’s insulting to me, and it should be insulting to our bus riders.” 

Board President Peeples added, “Like Joe, I am offended by all the misinformation in the public and the press.”  

He said that the district “should not reward that misinformation by not making this purchase ... I am convinced to the extent that there have been legitimate concerns about the way the Van Hools have been manufactured—and there were—we’ve done everything possible to meet those concerns.”