Letters for February 27-March 4 

Readers sound off on AC Transit's Belgian travel and "The Buses from Hell"

"Belgium or Bust," Feature, 1/30

Which Waste

I hope your readers do not get the wrong impression from my quote ending your article. Going to Belgium was not the "waste" to which I referred. AC management had to do that to follow the directive of a board prior to my arrival. The waste was the quest for a three-door bus in the first place.

Greg Harper, AC Transit board member, Emeryville

A Defiant Wimp

Having traveled extensively to Europe and Asia, and having taken several direct flights from SFO to Paris and SFO to Brussels (to get to Antwerp), I can only conclude that Fernandez, citing the need to stay in Paris to get over "jetlag," is either arrogantly defiant of the taxpayers funding his junkets, or he's a wimp. Or both. Only in a government agency could one get away with this abuse. It wouldn't stand in most for-profit enterprises.

David Howard, Alameda

Buy Hayward

Mr. Fernandez must not ride the Van Hools he raves about. They are very poorly designed, making pretty much everybody on the bus uncomfortable. And with the high costs associated with procurement, why not stick with Gillig? Gillig is near the Hayward bus division! With the design changes being proposed, Gillig (and New Flyer and Orion) can make better, more reliable buses at a lower cost to taxpayers. AC Transit can even share parts and expertise with VTA, SamTrans, and countless other transit agencies throughout the Golden State. It's a no-brainer.

David Davenport, San Francisco

Jumping to Conclusions

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 into 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 percent 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 agency — not by any stretch of the imagination.

Another misleading claim is that the Van Hools cost so much more than comparable buses that AC Transit's finances are being harmed. According to Mr. Gammon's 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 percent. 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.

Michael Krueger, Alameda

"The Buses from Hell," Feature, 1/23

A Hellish Ride

Thanks for Robert Gammon's look at AC Transit's pigheaded bus purchases. He neglected a few other of the Van Hool buses' egregious horrors:

Not just at the front, but at the rear of the buses riders have to mount a platform eighteen inches from the floor in order to gain a seat, and there is often no pole or strap, so that once safely seated, the rider finds his or her center of gravity so high that she is tossed about wildly at every turn or curve and threatened with being violently thrown to the floor.

The lack of straps or poles on the Van Hools makes the act of walking to the rear of the bus a hellish exercise of bumping into people and grabbing on to anything that might offer support.

Almost half the seats on these buses from hell face the rear. This may be acceptable on trains or cruise ships, but bus riders need to see where the bus is going, so they can signal their stop.

Rather than a cord to pull and signal for a stop (running the length of the bus on both sides and available to every rider), Van Hool riders must search for a button on a pole which may or may not adjoin their seat, so that many have to lean across the aisle at a dangerous height from the floor in order to press the button. Front seats, reserved for handicapped and elderly, have no buttons at all.

The buses run hot, and feel stuffy, but to open the windows, which on the old buses beside every window seat slide open or shut, on the Van Hools requires leaning precariously over a seat in front of or behind the rider, or negotiating with other passengers in order to grasp the latches with two hands, and thus get some air.

There's more, much more to tell. The people who make the decisions for AC Transit clearly don't ride the buses, and because AC Transit is a regional system, there's virtually no political accountability.

As gas prices rise, the economy shrinks, and global warming looms, serviceable public transit is essential. Hopefully Robert Gammon's expose will help stir cities and counties into action, and put to sleep the venal fantasies of the AC Transit Board of Directors.

Paul Bloom, Oakland

Truly Absurd

Good article! Van Hool buses seem to be designed to inhibit public transit, not promote it. I am rather tall and so can negotiate the absurd changes of floor level from the aisle to seats. But passengers who are short in stature have to make a focused effort to step up and down to and from seats. The older the rider, the more dangerous the climb from fare box to seat. Makes no sense. Truly absurd. Fully as absurd as subjugating our streets to Fernandez' (and Tom Bates') obsessive megalomania. And probably, lust for federal and state transit funding. It all boils down to money and managerial egos in the end.

Glen Kohler, Berkeley

Dangerous to Riders

I appreciate the article and I also dislike these buses. They are uncomfortable and a danger to disabled riders. The expense that AC Transit went to, to buy these, would have bought several American certified buses that have been examined for their safety. This new AC Transit manager is, in my opinion, interested in his self-aggrandizement. This idea that people will board buses in the middle of streets from islands is absurd.

Claude Everett, Oakland

Another Victim

I am one of the victims of the Bus from Hell. In December 2004 I broke the tibia and fractured my right leg severely after falling from the platform seating. I presently suffer from complete regional syndrome, associated with nerve damage.

Doris K. Harris, Oakland

A Model for America

I was surprised and disappointed to read Robert Gammon's article, "The Buses from Hell." Admittedly, AC Transit, like all large public and private agencies, has room for improving customer service and efficiency, but the article pulverizes the agency without recognizing its valiant attempts to serve large numbers of riders who have no alternative to bus services. This is a daunting challenge, and not unique to AC Transit.

It is well-established that fare box recovery does not come close to covering the cost of operating public transit, and when an agency attempts to keep bus fares low in order to serve many very low-income riders, the problem is exacerbated. Voters seem to recognize that by passing three tax measures. But that has not been enough to fill the gap of rapidly rising operating costs.

AC Transit has not cavalierly reduced service; it has done so most reluctantly and with great anguish. One thing that I can say unequivocally about this agency is that it knows what its mission is and who it is that it serves: many without any other means of transportation. To suggest that the agency is insensitive to fare increases is unsupportable.

I don't know if the Van Hool buses are better than what the agency had before, or if they are better than American models. I know this: no matter what model the agency chooses, some drivers and riders will like something else better. The agency should not be smashed for trying to do something creative, improve service, and increase ridership through its Bus Rapid Transit system.

My aunt visited Oakland a few years ago from Washington, DC. She was so impressed with AC Transit service, the frequency of the schedules, the courteous drivers, and the cleanliness of the buses that she went back to DC and told the mayor that he should come to Oakland to see how to run a bus company in a large urban community where many riders have no other options. I agree.

Henry Gardner, former Oakland City Manager

What Idiot?

I am a 73-year-old, mildly disabled man who often uses AC Transit. I first encountered these Van Hool buses almost three year ago, when I was taking classes at Berkeley City College. On my first trip on one of the new buses I almost had a very nasty fall. The high step to the seat was not the problem but rather it was the virtual absence of any safe hand-holds. I knocked over at least six people as I swung around the slippery vertical pole. Fortunately they were younger and stronger than I and this prevented any serious injuries.

I thought "What idiot designed this bus and what bigger idiot at AC Transit accepted this poorly designed bus?" When I phoned to complain I was told that "the Boss" liked them but most others did not. I suppose like most bureaucrats he never rode the buses.

This past summer I had occasion to spend a week in Ghent, Belgium. I realized that the problem did not entirely lie with the bus design because the buses used in Ghent have many vertical and horizontal hand-holds everywhere, making movement though the bus safer for all. The responsible bureaucrat should either be terminated or his salary should be cut to pay for the necessary safety upgrades to these buses. I expect to be using the AC Transit system more and more as I age, but you can be sure I will always have an electronic device to capture in pictures and voice of the near-injured and injured.

Monroe Pastermack, Oakland

I'm Outta Here

Last month, AC Transit made changes in service that resulted in replacing the green commuter buses with the wireless access with the Van Hools on the line I ride in the mornings. The bus line services mainly commuters who previously were able to use the time to work on their computers, read, or access the Internet. On the Van Hools, there is no wireless access and the ride is too bumpy to be able to read or do work. I'm looking at discontinuing my monthly pass and using casual carpool instead. If I am not going to be able to use the time for enjoyment, I have no interest in giving my money to an agency that downgrades the level of service, yet still charges the same amount.

If you don't believe that the buses are disliked by the passengers, try riding the route and talking to them. I've been doing so, and not one single person has expressed a preference for the Van Hools. Why the agency is so determined to ignore the needs and desires of the consumers is baffling to me.

Dinah Hayse, Oakland

Go Think

Your article on the AC debacle does not have the true insight that could easily have been derived from those with engineering experience. My first time aboard a new VH vehicle informed me by the sounds of the rear-end gears that they were not cut to proper mesh angle. This sound signature continues to become more prominent with age. I have seen several vehicles on the hook and when inquired of those involved found several instances of power train failure.

This is a result of Eastern European sources for these components. Machine tools left behind by the Russians are both poorly designed and now well worn. The product is garbage. Though the company is based in Belgium and design done there, the mechanical production is mainly in Hungary.

The other element of this proposition B rape of the taxpayer is the obscuration of the flow of purchase funds due to overseas purchase. US purchase would put the transaction under public scrutiny and control. There is inordinate and most intentional concealment with highly probably kickbacks common to European transactions.

The irony of the remainder of the fleet, though old, being consistently more reliable and built here in Alameda County was not mentioned. The export of a few thousand jobs from the county would explain some part of the decrease in ridership.

I would suggest that we REPEAL measure B and rid the Awful Crappy Transit of asinine control. A further example is the recent move to field supervisors who have never driven a bus displacing those who moved to those positions from line driver. I have resided in this county long enough to watch drivers from the first day of employment to retirement with 28-30 years. Universally most older drivers retired due to deterioration of the working environment. I have observed several drivers that departed before their first anniversary. The system, if that term could be applied, is broken. I have been passed up at stops by drivers under penalty of being chastised for being late to a time point. Rules are without regard to the transit goals that should inform all actions.

I do recall the fifteen-minute intervals 24/7 of WWII transit mandated by H.J. Kaiser as a condition for production of ships. Our productivity cannot overcome overseas with the 8-9 hour a day travesty in place in a 24/7 economy. That is where the fare box lies also. No one will get out of their auto when threatened with loss of a job due to late or nonexistent buses. Most often only one direction of workplace transportation is accommodated. "Take a taxi" is the AC cry when confronted with the problem. Go think!

Robert B. Wister, Hayward

A Huge Improvement

These buses are a huge improvement over the old ones. They're comfortable, easy to board, and spacious. I ride the 1R, where the bus drivers drive pretty fast, and it's rare that a bus driver does not wait for an elderly person to make it to his/her seat before driving away. Also, there are the fold-out seats available on the side of the bus that are very close to the ground. I often see elderly people using these.

Rebecca Saltzman, Oakland

Bad to Ride

The Van Hool buses are bad to ride. BEFORE I was disabled, I fell off a rear seat because there was no support to hold onto when the bus lurched. SINCE disability, I could not take my walker through the front door because the aisle narrowed, and I cannot lift it up to bypass the obstruction. So I have to use the middle plank. However, this is difficult to get clear of passengers when the bus is crowded. They mill around without a place to go.

Twice the ramp was unable to be raised because of equipment failure ... passengers were able to take the walker and help me down. I was lucky that I wasn't in my heavy motorized wheelchair. If I am using my walker and sitting on a bus seat, the seats just don't feel stable; somehow I am sliding around on them. I couldn't figure out why until I realized that it isn't the seat that is the problem, but the lurching nature of the ride. And it also explains why I have back pain when I have to take a long bus ride. I now prefer to use BART whenever possible ... it means a longer walk sometimes, but it is a much shorter traveling time [including the walking], and it is also cheaper, more comfortable, and physically safer. When I do take my wheelchair, it IS nice to have the button to notify the driver when I want to get off ... but I cannot see far enough, when seated in the wheelchair, to know when I am getting near the stop, nor can I read signposts ahead. These are inconvenient and unsafe buses to ride. I repeatedly commented on this on a public transport survey, but the surveyor seemed not to want to pay attention to my complaints. I avoid bus travel whenever possible. I used to like taking them, but there was a long period of time when I avoided the routes that had Van Hools. Now I cannot do that. Too many Van Hools around. So I avoid buses when possible. I am relieved when the bus arrives and it is a "kissing" bus. They are much more comfortable.

I have not complained formally because I don't know where to complain. There is no address given to whom and where to complain, where someone will listen. And there seems to be very little substantive response from the people responsible. A remark that something like "only" 19 percent of the passengers are dissatisfied [I am paraphrasing, I do not have the quote] sounds like dismissal, and shows no realization that the other passengers are voting with their feet. And I suspect that the "only" 19 percent was garnered not by asking what was wrong, but by keeping certain subjects unexplored. The public transit survey I took part in, the survey-taker was not eager to note or explore my complaints about the buses. Certainly the bus drivers I have asked, all three of them, have been vociferous about their not liking the Van Hool buses.

AND, I abhor that the buses were not tested in the US, and that US buses weren't bought. In this time of recession, we do not have to support the European Union first. Nor do we have to copy European methods of transportation. NYC has a good public transportation system. It sounds like we have a board overseeing public transportation that is inexperienced, that is overinvolved in a theoretical idea of transforming Berkeley transportation, rather than concerned with providing a reliable, safe, economic, and comfortable service. Their decisions have been a disaster to the population they are supposed to serve. The buses are often late, come less seldom, are much more expensive, and are more uncomfortable and unsafe to ride. And the trip takes longer. I used to enjoy riding buses, now I use them only when I must, and try for the routes that have more kneeling buses. I am sorry for the repetitions in this letter, but I have a high level of frustration and anger. It takes a much longer time to get where I want to go, when I now have to transfer at the city center and then have a SECOND wait time for the SECOND bus. I got hurt when I fell off the chair. My back hurts when I use the buses because of the jouncing. It is incredible how badly managed this service has become. The only thing that improved over the last few years was the drivers' attitudes ... they are more courteous in the last few years than they had been. They do a responsible job with pride and consideration when the situation allows them to. The money for their medical plan was well spent.

Mr. Gammon, if you can send this letter somewhere where it might do some good, like the Attorney General's office, I would be ecstatic. I cannot make the meetings because I am disabled, elderly, and would have to use the bus service to get to and back from the meeting, in the dark, and [today] cold. And my back will hurt. I simply don't see where my presence will make a difference when there have been able and intelligent voices raised and ignored. After all, I am some of the "only" 19 percent.

Doreen Kossove, Berkeley

Post Hoc Rhetoric Fallacy

This article appalls me! First of all, the journalist uses Christian dualism in the title and grabs attention by demonizing AC Transit. If there's any way to lose credibility as a writer, it is to create distinct opposition between you and your subject and to not give their arguments due consideration. Of course, Mr. Gammon does provide the reader Fernandez' justification, but each time he mentions it, he frames it with scathing overtones. This is not the kind of reporting I desire.

I understand that Mr. Gammon wants to gain the attention of his readers and to perhaps provide an extreme alternative to the drastic right-minded papers that flood the American journalist landscape, but is this method so effective? Does his method create more opposition than progressive movement? Is an us-against-them-attitude really applicable in this case?

It's in AC Transit's best interest to care about the people and not to let some infatuation guide policy. Face it, there are a lot of other factors involved in bus ridership and public transportation than just the type of bus one purchases.

To say that the bus type catalyzed a downward spiral in AC Transit ridership, Mr. Gammon had to make a very, very, very long leap. And this leap demonstrates and plays off of our dedication to the familiar and fear of the new. Perhaps the buses are different, but what's wrong with difference. Is it a problem, if you have to look your fellow passengers in the eyes or deal with variant seating arrangements? These buses are cleaner, more spacious, more comfortable, and more attractive than their older counterparts. And how does he go so far as to say that these buses are responsible for injuries, when it really seems like these accidents were the result of human negligence? Can we just admit that "shit happens," instead of trying to traces lines to connect coincidence?

Having you ever heard of post hoc rhetoric fallacy? Because it applies here.

Mr. Gammon caught my attention, but he doesn't gain my support or respect; rather, he gains my disgust. I wonder if he has thought about writing for Lyndon LaRouche?

Angela Raelene Knowles, San Francisco

YES!

A group of us have been e-mailing, calling, and talking with AC Transit staff at the Transbay Terminal for a year now! Sooo clap your hands, tap your feet and join the chorus: Dump the Van Hool, Dump the Van Hool, Dump the Van Hool.

Ann Jennings, Albany


"Local Licks," Music, 1/2

A Big Vik Deal

I just wanted to say thank you so much for taking the time to mention my CD on your page.  As a Bay Area artist it is very encouraging to know that we have local resources who do actually take the time to listen to what's out there and talk about it.  As much as I appreciate friends, fans, and supporters, it can be difficult to get objective opinions on a project. This may seem like a small deal to some, but it is very much appreciated!

Brent "Big Vik" Victory, Oakland

More Letters Online

Complete versions of all these letters, plus many many more about AC Transit and its Belgian buses, at EastBayExpress.com

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