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I was highly critical of the first part of Mr. Gammon's piece, but the second one is an improvement. For the most part, he presents a straightforward investigation into the use of taxpayer dollars for travel expenses that may not be justified. I agree that it would have been good to have some travel expense data from other agencies for comparison, and it will be interesting to hear AC Transit's response.
Unfortunately, Mr. Gammon once again cannot resist tying the foreign travel and the Van Hool purchases in to AC Transit's financial woes. People expect that agencies will not waste taxpayer dollars on frivolous expenses, and any abuses deserve to be investigated on a matter of principle. However, it is misleading to suggest that the amount of money involved would make a significant dent in AC Transit's budget. Mr. Gammon documents $1 million in travel expenses over a seven-year period, which amounts to 0.05% of the agency's annual $282 million operating budget. The travel expenses may well be outrageous, particularly from a symbolic standpoint, but they are not sapping significant financial resources from the agencynot by any stretch of the imagination.
Another misleading claim is that the Van Hool cost so much more than comparable buses that AC Transit's finances are being harmed. According to Mr. Gammons numbers, the average cost of a Van Hool bus, including shipping, is $412,000. Although a garden-variety diesel transit bus may costs less than $300,000, a vehicle suitable for bus rapid transit (BRT) operations can cost more than $1 million. The Van Hools, which AC Transit will be able to use for BRT, fall near the low end of that range. Furthermore, AC Transit claims that the Van Hools are more reliable, which means the lower maintenance costs may justify the higher capital cost. Mr. Gammon made no attempt to investigate the validity of this claim.
Even if AC Transit had saved money by buying only the cheapest buses mentioned ($266,000 plus $2,500 shipping), and even if the capital savings could somehow have been transferred to the operations side of the budget, the agency's annual operating budget would have been boosted by only 1.7%. Of course, it's reasonable to expect prudent use of taxpayer dollars regardless of the amount, but it's entirely misleading to suggest that overpaying for Van Hools is somehow pushing AC Transit into financial ruin.
"Anyone who is defending the VanHells obviously does not ride them everyday."
Another possibility is that we do ride themperhaps not every day, but oftenand we like them. Perhaps we don't find a backward-facing seat to be that big of a problem, compared to the other advantages the buses offer. Perhaps we've noticed that half of the seats on many streetcars and trains face backward, and it's not the end of the world. Could that be it?
I find it amazing that dissenting views on the Van Hool issue are waved away with the casual dismissal, "Well, then you must not ride these buses, or else you would agree how terrible they are!" Apparently the only opinions that count are the ones that slot nicely into the "Van Hools are evil" world view.
Like Alissa, I am puzzled by Mr. Gammon's one-sided portrayal of the Van Hool bus issue, the coverage of which has been far out of proportion to its importance. V Smoothe has done an excellent job of documenting the factual errors and faulty logic in his article. I am a frequent AC Transit rider, and I simply do not see the supposed tidal wave of rider and driver hatred for the Van Hools. Yes, there are some legitimate rider and driver complaints about the design of the buses, but you will find that is true about every model of bus AC Transit currently runs. For example, I wish Mr. Gammon had asked some AC Transit drivers about the wheelchair lifts on the old NABI buses; I'm sure he would have gotten an earful.
There appear to be a core group of riders and drivers who hate the Van Hools with a passion and are very vocal about it. The fact that there have been numerous complaints filed and letters to the editor written doesn't prove that all the riders hate the buses. How many people would take the time to call or write AC Transit's customer service department, or to contact the local newspaper, just to say that they really like the new buses, or that they merely think they are OK? It will take a statistically valid sample of opinions to show whether riders truly hate, love, or are indifferent to the new buses.
The Van Hool story is further complicated by neighborhood opponents of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), who have realized that stirring up outrage over the Van Hools helps them build opposition to the whole BRT project. Mr. Gammon's article plays right into their hands, without any critical examination of the motives they might have for painting the Van Hools in such a negative light.
I have a very hard time believing Ms. Roy's often-repeated claim that "many, if not most, European manufacturers are imitating" American bus designs. Speaking as someone who has seen the wiring on a Fiat, I agree that things from Europe are not inherently superior; however, I have ridden a number of public transit systems around the world, and the buses run by most American transit systems are decades behind in convenience, comfort, and styling. In particular, AC Transit's NABI buses (yes, even the newest ones) have to be some of the noisiest buses in the world. I certainly hope that the European manufacturers are not following our lead, because if they are, the bus riders of the world are in for a rude awakening!
In all seriousness, though, I might be more inclined to believe that the Van Hools are truly horrible and dangerous if they were a brand new model that had never been tested or deployed. Buses like these have been in service around the world for many years. If they pose such a terrible danger, where are the screaming headlines from the foreign press? How is it possible that these buses are perfectly safe for people in Europe and Asia, and yet pose such a grave danger to Americans? It's not as if these buses are coming from a manufacturer in a country without adequate regulation: The European Union has safety standards comparable to those we enjoy in this country. I would like to see an explanation of this apparent discrepancy before I jump on the "buses from Hell" bandwagon.
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