The AC Transit Board of Directors moved quickly on its two most controversial projects following this month’s electoral victories, scheduling a special board workshop on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for Wednesday afternoon and approving a new round of Van Hool bus purchases.
In the Nov. 4 voting, Alameda and Contra Costa county voters approved Measure VV—assuring continuation of AC Transit’s $48 per year supplemental parcel tax—while Berkeley voters rejected Measure KK, an attempt to put the brakes on BRT’s Telegraph Avenue lane-set-aside in that city. In addition, Board President Chris Peeples (at large) and Board member Greg Harper (Ward 2-Emeryville, Piedmont, and portions of Berkeley and Oakland) fought off electoral challenges, winning new four-year terms on the board. A third board incumbent, Joe Wallace (Ward 1-El Sobrante, San Pablo, Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany, and Kensington and a portion of Berkeley) was unopposed for re-election.
At a special board meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 19, at 5 p.m. at the AC Transit headquarters at 1600 Franklin St. in Oakland, board members will hear staff presentations on the status of BRT, including the project status and funding, the local government process with the cities of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro, environmental documentation, and the “public relations aspect of the project.”
BRT is a long-range proposal by AC Transit to establish a high-speed bus line between downtown San Leandro and downtown Berkeley through downtown Oakland, using the route currently run by the 1 and 1R lines. A portion of that proposal involves setting aside dedicated bus-only lanes along Telegraph Avenues and International Boulevard-E. 14th Street. City staff and councils in the three affected cities are currently considering the project, which is scheduled to release a final Environmental Impact Report within 9 months to a year.
Meanwhile, in a complicated action that left board members at times appearing visibly exasperated and confused, the board approved General Manager Rick Fernandez’ recommendation to purchase nine more 60-foot “articulated” Van Hool buses as well as authorizing a contract for a prototype 45-foot “suburban style” bus from Van Hool that could eventually mean the purchase of as many of 40 new buses from the Belgian manufacturer. The “suburban style” 45-footers are intended to be used primarily on AC Transit’s cross-bay route between the East Bay and San Francisco.
The purchase of the 60 foot Van Hool double “artix”--probably the most controversial bus in AC Transit’s fleet--had originally come before the board last May in the General Manager's request for the purchase of 19 buses. But board members balked at the request at the time, asking that the staff justify the district’s need for that many 60-footers in its fleet.
AC Transit Special Projects Manager Stuart Thompson and Procurement and Materials Director Charlie Kalb’s memo for Wednesday’s board meeting requesting reconsideration of the 19 bus purchasedetailed no justification for the purchase in response to the board’s concerns, instead stating simply that “a compelling need still exists to purchase nineteen (19) articulated buses to complete the fleet composition plan and replace aging buses.”
But by the time the board was meeting on Wednesday, General Manager Fernandez had dropped 10 buses from the request for the 60-foot Van Hools, saying that the district’s needs for higher-capacity buses could be partially met by the proposed new 45 foot “suburban-style” buses Fernandez wants Van Hool to build for AC Transit. Since the 45 foot “suburban” Van Hools are not yet in existence, the district was proposing that Van Hool first produce a prototype of the proposed new buses before final district approval of a contract.
Fernandez said that AC Transit put out a Request For Proposals (RFP) for the new 45 foot suburban contract last June to 11 domestic and international bus manufacturers, but that only three manufacturers (Van Hool, Motor Coach Industries, and Bluebird) attended a July pre-proposal conference, and only Van Hool ultimately submitted a bid.
At one point, Fernandez had board members considering the 60 foot purchase and 45-foot prototype proposal simultaneously, with no exact designation of the number of new suburbans to be eventually requested from Van Hool, as well as a third agenda item in which the district was seeking “between $9 million and $50 million” of special state transportation money which district staff said could be used for the purchase of additional buses. The back-and-forth discussion finally became so confused, it caused an irritated Board President Chris Peeples to declare that the state financial request had nothing to do with the current bus purchases, and he called for a separate vote on each issue.
Eventually, board members approved the purchase of the nine 60-foot Van Hool articulated buses on a 5-1-1 vote (Harper voting no and outgoing board member Rebecca Kaplan--newly elected to the Oakland City Council--abstaining) and authorizing the 45-foot suburban prototype and contract negotiations for up to 40 of the buses on a unanimous vote.
Late last June, 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 reject going directly back to Van Hool for the new 60 footers, instead calling for the contract for the 19 new buses to be up for competitive bidding. AC Transit staff apparently never put the 60 foot contract up for bid, and on Wednesday, Fernandez argued against such an action as he had last June, saying that “if we put off the procurement of the buses to do another bid, Van Hool will probably win the contract because their price is lower, but the delay in letting out the contract [to put out the new bid] will ultimately raise that price.”
In explaining his no vote on the additional 60-footers, Harper said that “what bothers me is we’re doing this on the fly. What I and Rebecca (Kaplan) had asked for last May was a complete re-evaluation of our fleet plan. We’re not getting that.”