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.

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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.

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