Belgium or Bust 

As AC Transit's service and finances took a wrong turn, its employees made more than 100 trips to Europe — possibly for nothing.

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Scheidig himself is guilty of the same infraction. Records show that he has traveled to Europe at least five times, costing taxpayers a total of $11,421 — not counting the trip he had scheduled for this week. On at least three of those excursions, he stopped off in Paris for a few days. He did not charge AC Transit for Parisian hotel stays, but the agency paid him $50 a day food allowance in the French capital, though there is no indication on his travel records of what work he had there.

These trips were fairly unusual. After all, lawyers typically exchange documents by e-mail, fax, or FedEx, and don't fly 5,500 miles to hammer out the details of contracts. "We do a lot of contracts with agencies from around the country and they have never once sent their lawyer to negotiate a contract, or for a site inspection, or to visit, or to sign documents, or for any other reason," said Macleod of Gillig bus company.

Scheidig, who makes $217,000 a year, acknowledged that typically it would be unnecessary for him to negotiate the details of a contract in person. But he said Van Hool is a special case because it's so small. "They're a family-run business that wants to see folks face to face," he explained.

In all, AC Transit employees, including Thompson the 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.

Over the past few years, Rick Fernandez and the AC Transit Board of Directors have operated in relative obscurity. Board meetings are sparsely attended and except for some good reporting in the Berkeley Daily Planet, and a few stories in the Oakland Tribune, the agency's fascination with Belgian buses has gone mostly unnoticed. But that may change as Bus Rapid Transit gets closer to reality.

As details of BRT have surfaced over the past year, the plan has spurred a heated debate throughout the East Bay. Proponents maintain that it is the best way to coax people out of their cars and onto buses, while critics argue that it will cause nightmarish traffic, and send motorists onto quiet neighborhood streets. Currently, the plan is to transform the two center lanes of Shattuck and Telegraph avenues, International Boulevard, and East 14th Street into bus-only lanes, from downtown Berkeley to either San Leandro or BayFair BART stations. BRT would operate much like a light-rail system, only with buses instead of trains.

Even though the construction of BRT would mean tearing up some of the East Bay's major thoroughfares to build street-center platforms, it does not need the approval of Berkeley, Oakland, or San Leandro, according to AC Transit officials. However, agency Deputy General Manager Jim Gleich said that if any of the cities comes out against the plan, BRT would not go forward. The plan is currently in its final environmental review stage.

This year, as the debate intensifies over BRT, three AC Transit board members will be facing reelection: Joe Wallace, who represents El Sobrante, San Pablo, Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany, Kensington, and parts of Berkeley; Greg Harper, who represents Emeryville, Piedmont, and portions of Berkeley and Oakland; and Board President Chris Peeples, an at-large member. Peeples is one of the staunchest supporters of the Van Hools and he is the only current board member who was on the panel in 1999 when it hired Fernandez to take over the agency and handed him authority over employee travel. He declined to answer questions for this story.

Harper, meanwhile, has expressed the most skepticism about the Belgian buses during the past few years, though he has repeatedly voted to buy them. Harper, who is the immediate past president of the board and a strong proponent of BRT, said in an interview that the Van Hools enjoyed such overwhelming support on the board that he would have lost his ability to get things done had he publicly opposed them.

However, Harper recently indicated that his support for the Van Hools may be waning. Last year, apparently because of safety concerns, AC Transit ordered the manufacturer to redesign all future buses for AC Transit without the raised platforms and extra doors. Now that the new Van Hools will resemble their American competitors, Harper is having second thoughts. In fact, when asked whether the elimination of the buses' extra door and overhaul of the low-floor design meant that buying the Belgian buses was a waste, he responded: "I'd say pretty much it was."

What Do You Think, Readers?

Whether or not it makes sense to buy Belgian buses has little to do with the underlying issue of Bus Rapid Transit. Should Berkeley and Oakland support AC Transit's plans for bus-only lanes on Telegraph Avenue and other thoroughfares?

Go to KitchenDemocracy.com and share your views.

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