The Buses From Hell 

After AC Transit purchased costly foreign buses that drivers hate and many riders fear, its service and finances took a wrong turn.

Pamela Daniels lost her left leg to a Van Hool bus. In September 2005, she boarded one of AC Transit's expensive new Belgian-made buses in downtown Oakland. But as the 51-year-old library assistant was trying to step on to the vehicle's elevated platform to get to her seat, the driver pulled away from the curb and she was thrown to the floor. Her fall aggravated an old injury, and a nasty, painful infection took hold. "She ended up getting a below-the-knee amputation," said her attorney, Miles Cooper. "It's been a very difficult situation."

Records show that agency officials were aware the Van Hool buses were dangerous, especially for the elderly and people like Daniels, who had mobility problems and wore a special rocker-bottom shoe on her left foot. Yet for nearly three years before she lost her leg, AC Transit repeatedly ignored complaints voiced by both passengers and bus drivers.

In fact, agency officials have steadfastly refused to heed critics of their Belgian-made buses, which they began buying en masse six years ago. The Van Hools — dubbed Van Hells by some riders — are the cornerstone of AC Transit's grand plan to transform East Bay transportation into a European-style system in which the Belgian buses would take center stage. The agency calls its plan Bus Rapid Transit, and it would create bus-only lanes down the center of some of the East Bay's busiest streets.

AC Transit officials chose the Van Hools because they have extra doors and low floors, so riders don't have to walk up several steps to get on them and can board and exit more quickly. Though the Belgian buses cost more than some American-made models, are more expensive to ship, and don't have to undergo the same safety tests as domestic buses, no other US bus maker can match their specialized features. So in January 2002, the agency signed an exclusive deal with Van Hool and started importing its buses from abroad. "We found that no bus in the United States could accommodate the needs of rapid transit," AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez said during a recent interview.

To this day, Fernandez has nothing but praise for the Belgian buses and their manufacturer, arguing that the Van Hools are best suited to his agency's plans. But while they've been sold as the wave of the future, the new buses have been nothing short of a disaster. Indeed, a three-month investigation, which included dozens of interviews and a review of more than 5,000 pages of public documents, discovered that the very same features that prompted AC Transit officials to fall in love with the buses have injured drivers and riders and prompted both groups to hate and fear them.

In addition, AC Transit's European bus-buying spree contributed to one of the district's worst financial downturns in decades. In fact, since Fernandez took control of the agency in the late 1990s, its fortunes have worsened in almost every measurable category. Ridership has plummeted, costs have skyrocketed, and the agency has slashed service. The only way it has remained solvent in recent years is by repeatedly raising fares and convincing East Bay voters to tax themselves more.

In short, AC Transit's effort to transform the car-oriented East Bay into a European bus metropolis came not only at the expense of its own employees and passengers, but also as the agency was shortchanging taxpayers and riders.

And much of it was unnecessary.

Throughout most of its history, AC Transit has operated as a no-frills commuter workhorse. Its American-made diesel buses routinely carried more than 60 million passengers a year up and down the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay, from Richmond to Fremont. By the mid-1990s, the agency was enjoying boom times under the command of general manager Sharon Banks. But then, in early 1999, Banks suffered a series of debilitating strokes and died.

AC Transit's seven-member board of directors immediately promoted one of her deputies, Rick Fernandez. He had arrived in the East Bay a few years earlier after a career in midlevel management at New Jersey Transit and had never run a transit agency before.

Within a year of taking over, Fernandez was talking openly about transforming AC Transit into an über-efficient European-style transportation system. His vision matched perfectly with that of the agency's liberal and progressive board members, who yearned for a mass transit system that could rival that of London, Paris, or Amsterdam.

In August 2000, Fernandez and his staff asked European industry giant Mercedes-Benz if it was ready to export its wildly popular Citaro bus to the United States. They also talked to officials from the Van Hool company, which is based near Antwerp and named after the family that founded and runs it. Compared to Mercedes-Benz, which at the time was rolling more than 13,000 buses off its highly advanced assembly lines, Van Hool of Lier, Belgium was a small, boutique manufacturer, less than one-seventh the size.

After taking a European junket that November with officials from the Federal Transit Administration, Fernandez and three of his top deputies toured the Mercedes-Benz and Van Hool plants in April 2001. They fell in love with the Van Hool design, particularly its low floors and three doors — one more door than on American buses. "We were very impressed," Fernandez said. "What we found was that Van Hool was a true custom builder."

The general manager was envisioning a Bus Rapid Transit system, "BRT" for short, which would turn the middle lanes of some of the East Bay's most crowded thoroughfares into light-rail lines, only featuring Van Hool buses instead of trains. Passengers would purchase their tickets from kiosks erected in center-of-the-street platforms, and then step onto the waiting bus through any one of its open doors.

In its current incarnation, AC Transit hopes to install BRT in the two center lanes of Shattuck and Telegraph avenues, International Boulevard, and East 14th Street, from downtown Berkeley to San Leandro. The agency believes that prohibiting cars and trucks from using the two middle lanes along a fifteen- to seventeen-mile stretch in the heart of the East Bay is the best way to force people out of their vehicles and into buses. But critics say the plan will cause horrific traffic jams, forcing rush-hour motorists onto quiet neighborhood streets. The $400 million proposal, which does not include the costs of the Van Hool buses, is in its final environmental review stage.

Despite his often-stated claim that no other bus can fill AC Transit's needs, Fernandez acknowledged that most of the other US cities developing Bus Rapid Transit systems are buying domestic buses. None of them has plunged so deeply into the foreign-bus market, and only two other transit systems in the United States also use Van Hool buses, both on a very limited basis.

By contrast, AC Transit has maintained an exclusive contract with Van Hool for the past six years. Through July 2007, the agency had spent $97.2 million in public funds, buying 236 of its buses, which ranged in price from $300,000 to $530,000 each, depending on the size of the vehicle.

From a distance, the Van Hools are nearly indistinguishable from their American-made counterparts, except for the extra door. They're diesel-powered and no more fuel-efficient than domestic buses, yet they cost more than some American models. Records show that in 2000, AC Transit paid $266,000 each for several forty-foot-long buses made by an Alabama manufacturer. Just two years later, the agency paid $300,000 for the same-sized Van Hools. In addition, freight charges on the Belgian buses range from $7,500 to $13,500, compared to about $2,500 or less for those made in America.

Some critics describe Fernandez and AC Transit's love affair with the Belgian buses as "an obsession." Whether that's true or not, public records show that less than four months after signing the Van Hool deal, Fernandez described the agency's finances as "shaken." And as the agency continued to pursue its dream of a European-style transit system, its fortunes worsened and it lost millions of riders. For critics, that raises questions about whether it's even capable of making BRT work.

During Fernandez' tenure at the helm of AC Transit, the agency's operating costs have spiraled out of control. Between 2000 and 2007, rising salaries and medical benefit costs, along with higher fuel prices and expensive buses, caused the agency's annual operating expenses to spike from $195.2 million to $290.5 million. The accelerating costs, in turn, forced Fernandez to declare a fiscal emergency in 2004, and to obtain at least two large loans totaling $45 million in 2004 and 2006. He even had to sell 29 Van Hool buses to close a budget deficit.

But that was not enough, so the agency slashed service across the board. From 2002 to 2007, it cut its total number of bus lines from 157 to 93, thus reducing the number of neighborhoods it serves. During the same period, it also downsized its fleet from 771 buses to 632, retiring hundreds of older buses as the new Van Hools came on line.

The cuts disenfranchised some of AC Transit's most faithful riders. Sharon Yale, who has been riding AC Transit for more than four decades, said the agency eliminated a bus line that used to stop near her Montclair district home. "I bought my house 44 years ago, because the bus came to the corner," said the 68-year-old retiree, who doesn't drive and calls herself "100 percent public transportation dependent." She now has to walk uphill nearly a mile from the new bus stop to her door. "It seems like AC Transit has been doing everything but giving service to people."

In fact, during the past decade, service has often taken a backseat to the agency's desperate attempts to balance its books. From 1997 to 2005, AC Transit raised fares from $1.25 to $1.75 per rider, making its rates as high as those of any local bus service in the Bay Area. It also convinced East Bay voters to approve one sales tax and two property taxes in the past eight years — Measures B, AA, and BB. The last one, BB, which voters approved overwhelmingly in 2004, is a $48-a-year parcel tax that has generated about $17 million annually for the agency.

But the service cuts and fare increases have just made many riders angry. David Vartanoff, a 63-year-old electrician who cannot drive because of a disability, said the elimination of the 17 and 64 bus lines threw a wrench into his cross-town commute from his home near Alcatraz and Telegraph avenues in North Oakland. He's also frustrated about AC Transit's decision to limit its 25-cent bus transfers to only one additional bus ride. The agency used to let riders with longer commutes connect to several buses without paying another full fare. Now when he transfers to more than one bus, he has to pay $3.75 or more for a trip that used to cost no more than $2. "Not only has service vaporized, but it costs more to use it," he said.

None of these remedies have cured the agency's financial woes. Fewer buses and bus lines predictably resulted in fewer riders. According to statistics compiled by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a state agency that oversees state and federal transportation funds, AC Transit lost about 9 percent of its annual passengers from 2000-1 through 2005-6 — a staggering 6.1 million people, or more than twice the total population of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

The decline in passengers coupled with the rising costs has only made matters worse. A key measurement of any public transportation agency's financial health and its ability to be self-sustaining is known as "fare box recovery." This measurement calculates how well rider fares cover an agency's annual operating costs — the higher the fare box recovery, the more financially efficient the agency.

Throughout its history, AC Transit's fare box recovery has been below par. Between 1997 and 2001, for example, it was just 25 percent, or about one-third lower than the national average, according to the agency's own records. That is, riders paid about 25 cents of every dollar the agency spent on annual operating costs, while taxpayers covered the rest. During the past five years, the agency's fare box recovery has turned abysmal, plummeting to about 17 percent, or about half the national average.

Fernandez defends AC Transit's financial record and said there were many reasons why its fare box recovery nose-dived. "It's hard to take a look at it in isolation," he said. "Our costs have skyrocketed. The cost of medical has gone up dramatically. Fuel costs are up dramatically."

But it's also the case that buying expensive European buses has cost the agency several million dollars in the past half decade. And the costs for riders are likely to keep rising.

Fernandez said AC Transit's continuing financial problems may result in another fare hike this year. In a November memo to the agency's Board of Directors, he warned that it risked losing millions in state funds each year if it could not push its fare box recovery back above 20 percent. On Wednesday, January 23, the AC Transit board is scheduled to consider Fernandez' plan to raise fares to $2.

As riders dig deeper into their pockets, Fernandez and his top aides are learning that all the time and money they spent pursuing Belgian-made buses may have been wasted. A new report reveals that drivers, the people most familiar with the Van Hools, don't like them and rate them as mediocre compared to American-made buses.

In a survey for the agency conducted in September, but only made public last week, many AC Transit bus drivers roundly criticized the Van Hool buses. Some of the critiques were detailed; others short and blunt. "The buses are junk," one driver said. Another added: "Don't like these buses, they're bad." A third remarked: "From my experience, these are the worst buses we have."

In sixteen categories overall, from braking and visibility to handling and acceleration, the 230-plus drivers rated the Van Hools a "3" for "average" on a five-point scale in which a one was considered "poor," and a five, "excellent." The results were not what Fernandez expected to hear, nor was the drivers' repudiation of his oft-repeated claim that the Belgian buses outperform domestic ones. In the category of "overall comparison to other buses," the drivers rated the Van Hools below average — giving it 2.82.

But the drivers reserved one of their lowest marks — a 2.38 — for "ride quality." In fact, longtime AC Transit driver David Lyons said the Van Hools ride so poorly that they put him out of work. The 27-year AC Transit driver said a painful pinched nerve in his neck forced him to take a five-month leave last year. "I put in my request not to drive them," he said of the Van Hools after he returned to his job. "It really makes a difference."

Because of their three-door design, the Van Hools have a shorter wheel base — the distance between the front and back wheels — than their American counterparts, making them difficult to drive and hard on bus drivers' bodies, Lyons said. The toughest model to handle, he said, is the forty-foot Van Hool. AC Transit purchased 105 of them through July 2007, at an average cost of $308,000 each, records show. "The suspension is real unstable because of the short wheel base," Lyons said. "It causes the bus to bounce up and down a lot."

During several recent bus rides around Oakland and Berkeley, other AC Transit drivers shared Lyons' disdain for the Van Hools. The short wheel base, they said, also makes tight corners tough to negotiate because the rear end — where the third door is located — is much longer than American-made buses. "We have a lot of trouble with these buses, especially when you turn," said German Zambrano, an eighteen-year AC Transit veteran, as he was driving a forty-foot Van Hool. Many other drivers seconded his complaint in the survey.

But as bouncy as the forty-footers are, this reporter found the sixty-foot, accordion-style Van Hools an even rougher ride. AC Transit plans to make these four-door sixty-footers, which cost about $530,000 apiece, the backbone of its Bus Rapid Transit system. But on the potholed streets of Oakland, along San Pablo Avenue and East 12th Street, the sixty-footers' suspension makes them a poor choice for commuters. In the rear of the bus, the ride was so jarring that it was impossible to read a newspaper or magazine.

In terms of overall safety and riding comfort, it's not clear how the Van Hools stack up against domestic buses. Under a 1987 law, American buses purchased with federal funds must undergo a rigorous review at the nation's testing center in Altoona, Pennsylvania before they're certified as safe for drivers and passengers. But because AC Transit buys Belgian, the Van Hools have never been to Altoona.

Whether this lack of US safety testing has put AC Transit drivers and riders in harm's way isn't clear. But judging from comments and complaints riders registered with the agency over the past half-decade, officials knew early on that many passengers were afraid of the Van Hools.

North Oakland resident Joan Lichterman, who has been riding AC Transit for 34 years, calls the new buses "Van Hells." "A lot of people call them that," the 65-year-old said. "Neither the drivers nor the passengers like them. And getting into the seats is just horrible. Drivers don't want to wait for people to sit down before they lurch off."

Lichterman's complaints are echoed by the vast majority of the 100-plus passenger comments that AC Transit has received since the new buses went into service. The complaints also raise concerns about whether the Van Hools are dangerous, especially for the elderly and those with mobility problems.

Many of the criticisms centered on the elevated platform seating that resulted in Pamela Daniels losing her leg. And the complaints go to the heart of why AC Transit fell for the Van Hools in the first place.

One of the two primary reasons for why the agency went Belgian is the low floors. The low floors mean that when the bus stops, passengers don't have to climb several steps to get on board. However, they do have to step up to a 12-inch-high raised platform to get into their seats — often when the bus is already moving. The same problem occurs when they're trying to get out of their seats in anticipation of their stop.

One Alameda rider summed up the Van Hool elevated platform hazard in a July 2004 complaint made with the agency: "I was riding from Alameda City Hall to Webster & Santa Clara on Friday afternoon, 7/23/04. I was seated on one of the raised 'platform'-type seats on the new model #51 bus. When we approached my stop, I rang for a stop and stood up to leave the bus. Forgetting momentarily that I was on the elevated seat, I misjudged the distance to the floor, lost my footing, slipped and fell into the metal frame of the seat across the aisle, spraining my wrist and fracturing two ribs."

Drivers, meanwhile, are caught between angry riders and AC Transit brass who demand faster commutes and on-time performance. If drivers wait to pull away from the curb until all passengers are safely seated, or tell riders to remain in their seats until the bus comes to a complete stop, it slows down the commute, thereby defeating the purpose of Bus Rapid Transit.

Fernandez, however, downplays these criticisms. "It's a small percentage of people who complain," he said of the passengers in an interview before the drivers' survey was released. He also pointed to an agency graphic that showed that while passengers suffered 67 percent more falls on the Van Hools in their first year of service, the number of falls since May 2004 has been about the same as on American-made buses. Finally, he pointed to a survey the agency conducted in October 2002 of passengers riding on the first two Van Hool prototypes. "We got a very positive result," he said.

However, the neutrality of that survey seems suspect. For example, the questionnaire touts the Van Hools' design features before asking passengers a series of questions about some of those same features. "This bus has some very important design features that distinguish it from any other bus in North America," the survey began, and then listed ten features, including "extra doors" and "a low floor from the front to the very back, requiring only one small step between the curb and the front of the bus."

Joyce Roy, an East Bay transit activist and leading critic of the Van Hools, called the survey very unscientific. "You don't tell people how great the bus is and then ask them what they think of it," she said. "And the survey never asks about having to step up to your seat."

Moreover, an AC Transit internal report obtained for this story shows that the elevated platform, which characterizes the Van Hools, makes the Belgian buses more hazardous for riders once they pay their fare. According to the report, the number of passengers who fell after they boarded a Van Hool bus in 2003-04 outnumbered those on American-made buses by more than 600 percent. And though the number of onboard falls on Van Hools has declined since then, they still outpace American buses by nearly a two-to-one margin.

Pamela Daniels' attorneys have been in settlement talks with AC Transit for the past few months. She sued the agency in September 2006. In a court filing two weeks ago, one of her lawyers, Miles Cooper, revealed that Daniels has been out of work for nearly two years and would settle the case for $6.1 million. AC Transit offered $1 million. If the two sides can't reach agreement, the case is scheduled to go to trial February 19 in Alameda County Superior Court.

AC Transit General Counsel Kenneth Scheidig declined to say whether the agency intends to go to trial. But he did contend that Daniels' case was not proof that the Van Hools are unsafe. He said Daniels was not representative of whether the buses pose a risk to riders, because when she fell, she reopened an old skin graft that then became seriously infected. "She got a scratch on her leg," he said. "To use that as an example is to take this to the extreme."

Nonetheless, it's undeniable that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of East Bay residents with various disabilities, mobility problems, and old injuries ride Van Hools every day, and many of them could be just as vulnerable as Daniels. But it is unclear just how many of them have been seriously hurt, because AC Transit officials said they do not compile detailed rider-injury data based on the types of buses in its fleet.

But despite Scheidig's protests, AC Transit seems to have admitted at least some culpability for Daniels' amputation. Late last year, agency officials ordered the Belgian bus maker to remove the elevated platform directly behind the driver on all new buses it builds for AC Transit.

And in an apparent nod to drivers' complaints, Fernandez and his top staffers also recently ordered Van Hool to jettison the extra doors, and lengthen the wheel base on future buses. As a result, the new Van Hools will be nearly identical to their American-made competitors.

Coming next week in part two: European travel, no-bid contracts, "washing" federal funds, and doing an end run around American businesses and workers.

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