Public Comment

Commentary: Questioning the AC Transit-Van Hool Partnership

By Joyce Roy
Thursday August 07, 2008 - 12:27:00 PM

AC Transit began displaying a proto-type Van Hool 40-foot, two-door, low-aisle bus in June. After a few mechanical fixes, it is now ready for the rubber to hit the road. And they have prepared a survey for riders. 

But, it seems, from Item 7 on this Wednesday’s AC Transit Board agenda, which talks about the buses’ delivery schedule, it is already a done deal! So before it has been road tested and the survey completed, they are being fabricated in Belgium! And without a true test—a rider comparison to an American true low-floor bus that does not require people to step up to seats on pedestals or ride backwards. 

And the board does not even know how much they cost! At the April 4, 2007 board meeting, the general manager stated that they would cost $400,000 each “including delivery and sales tax.” Since then, the board has approved adding air-conditioning at the cost of about $16,000. So it seems to be about $416,000/bus, but have they seen an invoice? The order is for 50 buses even though only eight 40-foot buses are due for replacement. And with little or no increases in local ridership, why would more buses be needed? 

So these 50 unneeded buses would cost $20.8 million—about what they say their budget gap is! 

All the buses should be air-conditioned. Every new one and, since AC Transit receives generous federal funds for preventative maintenance, they can retrofit existing buses. In fact, Cal-OSHA has cited AC Transit for violation of their heat illness standards. Heat inside buses can be as high as 107 particularly in the Hayward area. Hearings on this are continuing. 

AC Transit has been on a bus-buying binge since its “special partnership” began with Van Hool in 2002. It has driven their decisions. While other agencies are buying diesel electric hybrid buses to cut down on fuel costs, air pollution and greenhouse gases, AC Transit has continued to buy diesel buses because Van Hool does not make hybrid buses. Van Hool is in the driver’s seat in the “special partnership.” 

After years of pressure, particularly from me, this proto-type 40-foot, two-door bus is inching closer to the American low-floor design. But it is too little, too late. They managed to get more seats at floor level but because of the awkward location of the engine in the middle of the bus, people in wheelchairs are relegated to the left over space opposite the motor. This makes accessing the space more difficult and their vision blocked by the motor. And if there are two wheelchairs, one has to ride backwards and passengers have to exit between them. 

If more 40-foot buses are really needed, why not go for the real deal instead of a pale imitation and stop sending jobs overseas! An American true low-floor bus places equipment under a low mezzanine level in the rear instead of in the middle of the bus and they have no seats facing backwards or on pedestals. And they cost about $75,000 less! 

Another waste of public funds is the fuel cell program. While most bus agencies with fuel cell programs are cutting back or eliminating them because they are very expensive and ineffective, AC Transit is expanding theirs. Presently it consists of three Van Hool fuel cell buses that keep breaking down. And the hydrogen for them is produced from natural gas, a by-product of which is methane gas, one of the worse greenhouse gases. In spite of this experience, AC Transit has ordered eight more Van Hool fuel cell buses at $3 million each! That $24 million could have purchased 48 American low-floor diesel hybrid electric buses with up to 100 percent federal funding. According to the AC Transit staff member who manages funding, the Van Hool buses are paid for with operating funds, which are then back-filled with federal preventative maintenance funds. But, she insists, all the federal funds for preventative maintenance are used for maintenance! Amazing! 

On the November ballot, AC Transit will be asking for an extension on their parcel tax with an increase of a mere $4/month, the cost of a gallon of gas. As a candidate for the Board, I would like to see that pass and it requires 67 percent. This order of 50 unnecessary buses is a test for the board. The ballot statement reads, in part, “To preserve affordable local public transportation that allows seniors and people with disabilities to remain independent ……and all money staying local.” If the board votes for these untested buses that make bus riding difficult for “seniors and people with disabilities” and sends funds overseas, will voters trust them with their money? 

I am going to try hard to convince voters to vote for the parcel tax by informing them that there are now three on the board, including Greg Harper, that are questioning the Van Hool partnership and if I am elected there will be four. And on a seven-member board it takes four to tango. But it would certainly help if the present board would do the right thing NOW! 


Joyce Roy is the Reform candidate for the at-large seat on the AC Transit board.