AC Transit says it wants to get community feedback on the re-engineered Van Hool buses soon to go out on local routes, but the timing of the district’s public input process appears to make it unlikely that any suggestions or criticisms will come in time to have much effect on the buses’ manufacture.
In a controversial deal that was widely reported in the Daily Planet last year, AC Transit is buying 66 modified 30- and 40-foot buses from the Belgian-based Van Hool company, partly in connection with a complicated arrangement in which the district is selling off 16 early-retired buses manufactured by North American Bus Industries (NABI).
The new buses have several design changes from the current Van Hool buses being operated by the district, put in place after the district received widespread criticism of the Van Hools’ original design.
A prototype of the new 40-footers was delivered to AC Transit in mid-June, and the district made the new bus available for community inspection and walk-throughs at its June 11 board meeting. But the prototype has been largely invisible since then, with staff members telling reporters in late June that there were no plans in place at the time to display the prototype in other parts of the community, or to put it in service on any of the district’s bus lines so that riders could see the changes.
The prototype delivery and beginning of bus manufacturing had originally been scheduled for April.
At Wednesday night’s AC Transit board meeting, staff members said that the prototype 40-foot Van Hool was now being put in operation on the district’s 51 line exclusively. That line runs from downtown Oakland to downtown Berkeley on Broadway and College Avenue. AC Transit Marketing and Communications Director Jamie Levin said that the bus would also be available for public inspection in August at two locations in Berkeley.
Also on Wednesday night, AC Transit staff introduced a three-page “Rider Survey” brochure on the new 40-foot buses in connection with the prototype public viewing and 51 line operation. The survey asks riders to rate the new Van Hool bus on a 5-1 scale (from “I like it very much” to “I dislike it very much”) on various exterior and interior aspects.
General Manager Rick Fernandez said that the first five buses could be delivered to AC Transit as early as Aug. 25, with the remainder of the order coming from Belgium in staggered three week intervals.
After board members Elsa Ortiz, Rebecca Kaplan, and Rocky Fernandez (not to be confused with General Manager Rick Fernandez) questioned staff on the timing of the bus manufacture and delivery and the district rider surveys, board president Chris Peeples estimated that one-half of the order would be either delivered or in the midst of shipping by the projected mid-September completion of the surveys.
That raised the question of the purpose of the survey, which was supposed to give the district feedback in time for possible modifications of the new 40-footers while they are still in manufacture.
General Manager Fernandez defended the timing of the survey, saying that any possible changes could be made by AC Transit itself after delivery, or by Van Hool’s North American distributor, ABC Company of Minnesota.
Fernandez also minimized the possibility of any possible changes in the buses’ manufacture, saying that “we have already made a lot of changes in the design of this bus in response to community concerns,” and that “when we made the bus buy [last year], we said we’d have a prototype, but very few changes could be made afterwards.” Fernandez also said that the district has already received verbal comments on the new bus, and that “everything has been positive.”
In the discussions over the contract last year, Fernandez had made it plain to board members that once the prototype was completed, structural changes to the buses would be impossible, and that only a limited modification of seating arrangements or other interior design could be done.
The board briefly considered delaying the manufacture and delivery until the rider surveys could be completed, but later approved the current delivery schedule on a 6-0-1 vote, with Kaplan abstaining. Kaplan said that she didn’t think it was an issue of how many structural changes to the manufacture the bus makers could do at this late date, but rather “a public participation issue.”
When AC Transit put its prototype new 40-foot Van Hool bus on display last June, staff members seemed more intent on blaming changes on the district’s most frequent critic than on explaining the new design to passengers.
During the June 11 AC Transit Board meeting, residents were allowed to walk through the prototype to review the changes, with staff members available to answer questions.
But when one older man asked why the fold-down, side-facing seats in the front of the bus were so low, saying that it was difficult for senior riders to get up and down in the seats, AC Marketing and Communications Director Jamie Levin suggested that he should “ask Joyce Roy. She’s responsible for the changes.”
The staff member continued that “I guarantee she won’t like this bus, either,” adding that “she’s been wrong on everything so far.”
Roy, a retired architect and local public transit advocate, has been a frequent and persistent critic of the Van Hools at board meetings. In 2004, she lost a race for the AC Transit Board to current Ward 2 Director Greg Harper. She is running against board chair Chris Peeples in the November election for the at-large board seat.
Several board and staff members have acknowledged at district board meetings that many of the changes in the new 40-foot Van Hools were made at Roy’s suggestion.
Some of the major inside changes between the original 40-foot Van Hools and the new buses now in manufacture:
Motor in the back
All back seats have step-ups to reach them
10 seats face backwards
Motor in the middle
Final back seats have no step-ups
7 seats face backwards
New 40-footers have a wider wheel base than the originals. Drivers had cited the smaller wheel base as a major problem in the originals, making the ride less steady, and making it harder for the bus to go around sharp corners.