I must admit, I have not darkened the door of the AC Transit Board of Directors like a good transportation writer should. It’s hard enough to get worked up over BART‘s august body of decision-makers, and they represent three of the Bay Area’s most crowded counties.
But I got an e-mail saying that perhaps 100 people were going to show up today to head off what ended up to be a unanimous decision to authorize a plan to purchase a fleet of new Van Hool buses.
Actually, the public outcry was about as robust as the transportation media’s (oh, let me speak for all of them, just this once) enthusiasm for stories about AC Transit. I admit, this is a disservice to our readers, many of whom depend upon bus service to get around. I suspect those six or eight people who showed up to question the agency’s penchant for European styling may represent the views of a great many riders who didn’t know about the meeting or the impending decision and perhaps had other priorities like waiting for a bus back from the doctor’s or grocery store.
These are the folks who wonder why the state, federal government and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission direct billions into BART extensions while their bus service declines and their fares increase. I have heard the explanations, and they sound logical. It’s difficult to fault them for questioning those decisions, however, while federal lawsuits over bus-rail funding equity issues present a much thornier thicket to see through.
But the folks who did show up told the board that they don’t much like the Van Hools, especially the 40-foot, three-door variety. They bob riders and drivers up and down thanks to an unfortunate weight distribution problem, have narrow aisles that make it harder for wheelchairs and people with service dogs to enter and high seats that are difficult for less energetic riders to climb into.
“These buses are really an insult to the riders,” said Joyce Roy, a semi-retired architect who lives in Oakland. From the time the buses were introduced in 2003, she said, it’s been no secret that riders and even drivers can’t stand these third-of-a-million-dollar motor coaches.
Even the Metropolitan Transportation Commission asked why the buses had to be purchased from abroad, possibly jeopardizing federal funding and costing more than domestically manufactured models. AC Transit responded back in October that it had “originally conducted a competitive procurement for suitably styled and engineered” buses for its Rapid Bus express lines, but domestic makers didn’t step up. Acknowledging this problem, the Federal Transit Administration then gave “federal authority for sole source procurements of European-made models.”
This explanation satisfied the MTC, but not riders like Roy, who contend that older and disabled riders let the Van Hools pass by until they can ride one of the fleet’s older buses with a roomier entrance.
AC Transit’s management assured the board that the new procurement of Van Hools will be custom made with some of the earlier issues designed out of them. Even then, the agency will try out a prototype before deciding on a big-number purchase of the Belgian buses.
I’d like to know why AC Transit’s needs are so unique that no other bus makers can satisfy them. I’m told Van Hool has a pretty healthy share of the U.S. bus market, which might indicate that the company makes an outstanding product at a competitive price.
I got the sense that AC Transit management feels an obligation to make Van Hool happy by trouble-free approval of this purchase. I can understand why that might make the intimate community of board followers just a tad curious.
Photo downloaded from www.vanhool.be.