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the horror: AC Transit’s jet lag

By enelson
Thursday, January 31st, 2008 at 5:43 pm in 511, AC Transit, air travel, Buses, Funding, transit equity.


When I called attention to another local news outlet’s story on AC Transit’s love affair with Belgian-made Van Hool buses a week ago, I said I would be waiting impatiently to read this week’s sequel.

Looks like the East Bay Express’ Bob Gammon saved the best for last. This week’s story gives AC Transit officials a lot more to explain, and it certainly left me wishing I had done all that digging through the bus agency’s records.

While I enjoyed reading last week’s story, it didn’t convince me that these buses had dragged down the entire agency nearly as much as the drop in employment after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. For a different perspective on the Van Hool buses and AC Transit’s fortunes, see V Smoothe’s blistering critiques of the EBE article on V has also done a quick history of the agency’s decline, mismanagment, criminal probes and successes on Novometro.

But this week’s Gammon article, assuming it is accurate, gives AC Transit officials a lot of ‘splainin to do.

I still don’t see that the Van Hool buses are as horrible as the stories want us to believe, but Part 2 of the series drops a bomb that your average shift worker waiting for the all-nighter will have a lot of trouble fathoming.

Gammon’s report, excerpted below, says that General Manager Rick Fernandez and other agency officials have done quite a bit of traveling to check on their Belgian busmaker since signing an exclusive $60 million deal to provide wheels to the East Bay’s urban core:

In all, AC Transit employees, including (Belgium-based) bus inspector, filed at least 163 travel vouchers for European trips from 2001 to October 2007, the vast majority of which were to Van Hool, totaling $947,238. And in the coming months and years that price tag promises to grow higher. Last week, at Fernandez’ request, the AC Transit Board of Directors increased the daily food allowance for international travel to $134, an increase of 168 percent.

Among trips to Belgium were side-trips to Paris, Madrid and Amsterdam:

In fact, as the general manager was on his way to sign the Van Hool deal in January 2002, he stopped off in Paris and checked into the Normandy Hotel in the heart of the French capital. The Normandy sits in one of the most exclusive sections of the city, not far from the Eiffel Tower, one block from the River Seine, and across the street from the Louvre.

Travel records show that Fernandez’ two-day Parisian getaway, including a food allowance and round-trip train fare to Brussels to sign the bus deal, cost taxpayers $735. Three months later, he did it again, spending another weekend at the Normandy at a total cost of $904.

While I’m not moved to rush out and retrace the steps of a reporter who used to work in my very own news organization, I will certainly be listening at upcoming AC Transit board meetings to hear the explanations. I’m still waiting for one director to call me back.

In the story, the transit agency offers several explanations for the trips, as well as the defense that some of the side-trips were paid by the employees in question.

The best explanation in the story by far is from Fernandez:

The general manager, who is paid $260,000 a year, said he takes the side trips because he needs time before the bus-deal meetings to fend off jet lag and recuperate from long plane flights. “I don’t know about you, but it takes me time to get acclimated,” he said.

As one who has spent some time in some moderately expensive hotels in some far-flung locales, I have some idea of what he’s talking about. I would not, however, want to have to explain that to an AC Transit rider who gets home to San Pablo at midnight after spending $8 to ride three hours from cleaning offices in Redwood City.

Photo of Pont Marie by Rita Crane from

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9 Responses to “the horror: AC Transit’s jet lag”

  1. V Smoothe Says:

    I think those numbers would have had a lot more impact if Gammon had offered a comparison – how much do, say, 5 other agencies spend on travel? In a vacuum, I have no idea whether such expense is normal or not. Or to what degree it is abnormal. How much less would we be spending on travel if we were using NABI buses? In a void, that number means nothing.

    $157,873 a year is a lot, so I don’t want to make light of expenditures, but on the other hand, it isn’t really a very significant portion of a $300m annual budget.

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    I agree that a comparison might have helped shed light on the significance of the amount. But from where I’m sitting, getting over jet lag in Paris is difficult to justify when most of the riders you serve could never afford to fly the the East Coast, let alone Europe. I also have it on good authority that AC Transit’s directors are similarly concerned. It’s also true that $1 million for European travel over a decade is just a drop in the AC Transit budget bucket. When you’re traveling on the quarters, dimes and nickels of poor people, however, it’s much more difficult to minimize such expenditures. (by the way, thanks for the history lesson… i read it all the way through)

  3. Reedman Says:

    It appears this whole tempest is due to AC Transit wanting a custom designed and spec’d bus instead of using what other agencies use. The fundamental questions are: Did they get something ‘better’ because they went through all this? And, did they get their money’s worth?

  4. Capricious Commuter Says:

    The way it was put to me was that they’ve done this to make the buses more attractive, more like a light-rail car with more glass and such, to lure more people out of their cars and onto the buses. They deserve credit for taking that chance, I was told, even if they like to party a bit much on the public’s dime.

  5. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    I think people need to go back to the earlier entry about the Van Hool buses to refresh themselves on what was said then:

    There just is not a lot of choice in transit buses out there.

    There are some other things to keep in mind: Gillig has never made articulated buses, so if they tried it, it would be a different experiment. It was apparent very early on that the NABI low-floors are not good buses for speedy service: baby strollers tend to clog the rear doorway and slow people getting off, which is probably the reason for the third door on the 40 foot buses.

    The noise factor is very big. The Van Hools are probably the quietest buses you will find in the US. Compare them to the Orion(?) hybrid buses on the Muni. The Van Hools are a lot quieter, despite being straight diesels instead of hybrids. (There were supposed to be some Van Hool hybrids at AC Transit, but I am not certain which they are or even if they ever made it here.)

    Reliability has been another thing. I have seen very few missed runs because of breakdowns on AC Transit. I think the Van Hools may have something to do with that, but I do not know for certain how reliable they have been.

    I have had a lot of misgivings about the Van Hools, but if I were to rate their success, I would say that they are about 75% successful in their improvements. To answer Reedman’s question, I would say yes, they did get their money’s worth.

  6. david vartanoff Says:

    claim, Van Hools w/ third(or fourth on artics) doors necessary for POP
    Reality not even a tentative future date for POP meanwhile AC continues to charge for transfers which in most systems are the Proof.
    claim fully low floor
    Reality low floor but many seats on raised platforms

    collateral issue every different vendor one buys from mean more physical space, inventory capital for spare parts, learning curve time for both operational and maintenance personnel.
    And if anyone believes they ride comfortably, check out the apologetic e-mail to Transbay riders promising not to again subject them to the VH’s after apparently loud squawks.

  7. DensityDuck Says:

    who are you e
    e cummings. or something
    you seem to have a
    very strange Approach to line breaks
    punctuation! And


  8. Freddy Dierckx Says:

    Reliability and maintenance friendly will be cheaper in the long run. But you have to wait to see. I think a lot of US people are paid to mail negative for a non US product. In the old days, everything had to come from the US. But that is also a while ago.

  9. Michael Krueger Says:

    I know they are still using Van Hools on some major Transbay lines; I just rode an articulated Van Hool on Line O yesterday! I wholeheartedly agree that they are not as comfortable for long trips as the big, green MCI “freeway cruiser” coaches. However, the Van Hools do handle wheelchairs, luggage, and strollers better, and they are comfortable enough for the shorter Transbay runs. As comfortable as the MCIs are, though, they are incredibly loud (when you’re standing outside), large, and unwieldy. This makes them difficult to use on lines that spend a lot of time off the freeway, especially if the streets are narrow and the turns are tight. No bus is perfect!

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