AC Transit Will Purchase More Van Hools

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 10:01:00 AM
A Van Hool bus runs down Telegraph Avenue where a rapid transit system is proposed.
Michael Howerton
A Van Hool bus runs down Telegraph Avenue where a rapid transit system is proposed.

The AC Transit Board of Directors moved quickly on one of its most controversial projects following this month’s electoral victories, approving a new round of Van Hool bus purchases at last Wednesday’s board meeting. 

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 AC Transit’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Telegraph Avenue lane-setaside in that city. In addition, board president Chris Peeples (at large) and Boardmember 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. 

In a complicated action that left board members at times appearing visibly exasperated and confused, the AC Transit board last week approved General Manager Rick Fernandez’s recommendation to purchase nine more 60-foot “articulated” Van Hool buses as well as authorize 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 a General Manager 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 purchase detailed no justification for the purchase in response to the board’s concerns, instead stating simply that “a compelling need still exists to purchase 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 fequest 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. 

However, the General Manager’s memo on the RFP for last Wednesday’s meeting, which read in part that “in May 2008, the Board authorized the General Manager to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the purchase of 45-foot low entry suburban style commuter buses,” appears to contradict the action actually taken by the board at the May 14 meeting. The online AC Transit minutes for that meeting read “MOTION: HARPER/ORTIZ to approve Resolution No. 08-035 adopting the AC Transit Fleet Composition Plan (2008 Revision) to include 40 45-foot suburban buses.” Staff’s original recommendation had been for 45-foot buses, but the inclusion of a 40-foot option had been put in the board action at the board’s request in order to provide more options for the purchase. 

It is unclear what effect staff’s limiting of the RFP to 45-foot buses alone may have had on the ultimate result of Van Hool being the only company to bid on the suburban RFP. 

Meanwhile, at one confusing point in last Wednesday’s board meeting, 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 could be used for the purchase of additional buses. The back-and-forth discussion finally became so confusing that 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 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 explained 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.”