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Re: “The Buses From Hell

Mr. Fernandez,

I have decided to address what you referred to as “glaring misstatements” from “The Buses From Hell.” The record clearly shows that your criticisms are inaccurate.

1. Records that your agency provided me as a result of a public records request showed that riders had been complaining for several years that the Van Hools posed safety issues and were dangerous to the elderly and those with mobility problems. The records also showed that bus drivers shared those same concerns. Plus the drivers also complained that the Van Hools are difficult to handle and have a bumpy ride. But it wasn’t until last year that you and your staff decided to address those issues, when you told Van Hool to remove the step-up platform that riders complained about and the extra doors that caused handling problems for drivers.

2. You said “the decision to purchase Van Hool buses resulted from competitive bidding.” But it’s also true that you and your staff steered the contract in 2001 to Van Hool by writing bid specifications that you knew only one American bus maker could match – a company that you said you would not do business with (for more, see part two of this report, “Belgium or Bust,” now posted on this site). It’s also true that AC Transit extended Van Hool’s exclusive deal last year for another five years without putting it out to bid. In addition, your own records show that the Van Hools are more expensive than some American buses. In 2000, AC Transit paid $266,000 each for American buses that are the same size as the Van Hools. But one year later, you agreed to pay $300,000 for the Van Hools plus $7,500 each to ship them from Belgium.

3 You say there was no “spike” in rider injuries, yet AC Transit’s own recent analysis shows that passengers were six times more likely to fall while riding on a Van Hool during its first year in service in 2003-4 than on American-made buses per mile. Last year, passengers fell twice as often on a Van Hool for every mile ridden.

4 You said, “we are providing more service today than before the cuts were made.” But your own records show that you have cut the number of bus lines from 157 to 93 and the number of buses in your fleet from 771 to 632. By any measure, that’s less service, not more.

5 You say that your agency uses funds “solely earmarked” for bus purchases to buy Van Hools. But as you readily acknowledged in our interview, and as your own records show, AC Transit takes federal funds earmarked for bus purchases and uses them on maintenance for its bus fleet. The agency then uses general operating funds, normally earmarked for bus maintenance, to buy Van Hools. The reason for this complicated scheme is that it’s illegal to use federal funds to buy foreign-made buses. (For more, see “Thwarting Buy America Laws to Buy Belgian,” in this week’s issue.) Your records also show that these fund swaps don’t cover the full prices of the buses, placing more pressure on the agency’s bottom line, especially when the Belgian buses cost more than Americans do.

6 You call AC Transit’s 17 percent farebox recovery rate “laudable,” yet a memo you wrote to the agency’s board of directors in November warned that if you could not get farebox recovery back above 20 percent, you risked losing essential state funds. That’s because state law views 20 percent as a rock-bottom number for farebox recovery not a “laudable” one.

7. Finally, I find it interesting that you said it was “good to see” me at last week’s AC Transit meeting when you were not there. In fact, it was announced at the meeting that you would not be attending because you had called in sick.

-- Robert Gammon

2 likes, 0 dislikes
Posted by BG on 01/29/2008 at 9:56 PM

Re: “The Buses From Hell

We're planning to publish this information in part two of this story, but because of some claims being made in some of the comments, we've decided to post it here as well:

Since AC Transit began its pursuit of Van Hool buses in the 2000-1 fiscal year, its fortunes have worsened across the board. And while other transportation agencies also have suffered setbacks during the same period, records show that AC Transit has consistently performed the worst among the Bay Area’s four major urban mass transit systems. In fact, AC Transit ranks last or second to last in three of the most significant measurements of a transportation agency’s wellbeing when compared to San Francisco’s Muni, BART, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, also known as VTA.

The key statistic that measures an agency’s efficiency and determines whether it’s worthy of taxpayer support is “farebox recovery.” It’s the ratio of how well passengers cover an agency’s general operating costs, and it’s expressed in percentages — the higher the percentage, the more efficient the agency. Under several state laws, transportation agencies must maintain specific levels of farebox recovery to receive certain funds. As the following table shows, AC Transit experienced the worst drop in farebox recovery from 2000-1 to 2005-6, the last year in which statistics are available for all four agencies from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees state and federal transportation dollars.

Farebox Revenue*
Agency ** 2000-1 ** 2005-6 ** % Change
Muni ** 24.2% ** 25.9% ** +7.0
VTA ** 12.3% ** 12.5% ** +0.1
BART ** 65.2% ** 60.3% ** -7.5
AC Transit 23.8% ** 19.7% ** -17.2

A second pivotal statistic is ridership, and it is most commonly expressed in the number of riders the agency serves per year. AC Transit has experienced the second worst drop. The numbers below are in the millions.

Annual Passengers*
Agency ** 2000-1 ** 2005-6 ** % Change
BART ** 103.7 m ** 101.4 m ** -2.2
Muni ** 235.1 m ** 219.6 m ** -6.6
AC Transit 71.1 m ** 64.9 m ** -8.7
VTA ** 56.5 m ** 39.2 m ** -30.6

Finally, an agency’s general operating costs measure how well it’s able to stay within its budget. If costs spiral out of control, then it may be forced to slash service, raise fares, and ask voters to tax themselves more. AC Transit has taken all those steps in recent years as its operating costs increased faster than all but one of the other agencies. Again, the numbers below are in the millions.

Operating Costs
Agency ** 2000-1 ** 2005-6 ** % Change
Muni ** $427.4 m ** $513.0 m ** +20.0
VTA ** $265.8 m ** $322.5 m ** +21.3
AC Transit $214.7 m ** $265.5 m ** +23.7
BART $334.1 m ** $425.5 m ** +27.4

This newspaper’s investigation uncovered no evidence that AC Transit’s Belgian bus purchases directly affected its farebox revenue or ridership. But because the agency pays for its Van Hools with operating funds, there is evidence that the bus purchases contributed to its increased costs, along with several other factors, including rising salaries, medical costs, and fuel prices. — Robert Gammon

SOURCE: Metropolitan Transportation Commission

* Farebox recovery and annual ridership statistics exclude paratransit.

Posted by BG on 01/25/2008 at 3:38 PM

Re: “The Buses From Hell

V Smoothe,

This is the last time I'm going to respond to you because you obviously have no idea what you're talking about. This story in no way asserts that ridership has plummeted because many riders don't like the Van Hools. It only associates declining ridership with service cuts. Riders complain about the buses because they believe they're dangerous -- and there's substantial evidence that they're right. Read the story!

-- Robert Gammon

Posted by BG on 01/23/2008 at 12:56 PM

Re: “The Buses From Hell

V Smoothe,

You can dig up any data you want, but you're still misstating the story. It does not compare ridership from 1997. Ms. Banks suffered a series of strokes and died in 1999. Rick Fernandez took over AC Transit later that year. In the 2000-01 fiscal year, annual ridership was 71,065,000. In 2005-6, the last year in which complete data was availablie, it was 64,924,000. As the story points out, that's a drop of 6.1 million annual passengers.

Moreover, you mischaracterize the thrust of the story. The decline in ridership is not a major theme. In more than 4,000 words, it gets a little more than one paragraph.

-- Robert Gammon

Posted by BG on 01/23/2008 at 11:37 AM

Re: “The Buses From Hell

V Smoothe, you should reread the story. It never claims that AC Transit's decision to buy Van Hool buses directly caused ridership to plummet. Instead, it simply states that the purchase of expensive buses came at a time and contributed to the agency's skyrocketing operating costs, along with several other factors. To deal with the spiraling expenses, AC Transit cut service across the board and raised fares. Predictably, fewer buses and bus lines resulted in fewer passengers.

-- Robert Gammon

Posted by BG on 01/23/2008 at 10:01 AM

Re: “Meet Oakland's New Go-To Lobbyist

I continue to read allegations among commenters that this article is "slanderous." Mr. Plazola, in his semi-entertaining but ultimately vacuous comment, which he is apparently so proud of that he has now posted twice, even claims it contains "lies" and "smears." Words such as these are easy to throw around, but for something to be slanderous, a smear, or a lie, it obviously must be false. However, none of the commenters, including Mr. Plazola, has actually pointed to a single word in this story and has evidence that it is untrue. If you can do so, post it here or email me at Robert.Gammon@EastBayExpress.com. If you're right, and some part of this story is wrong, we'll correct it, as is our longstanding practice.

Robert Gammon

Posted by BG on 01/12/2008 at 4:40 PM

Re: “The Old Guard Outmaneuvers the New Mayor

Oakmom, if that's who you really are, you're seeing conspiracy theories when there aren't any. This is not a story about Perata. It's about a port commission still controlled by Jerry Brown's appointees that appears ready to hand over significant powers to its executive director, thereby blunting the authority of Dellums' two new appointees and the two additional ones he's scheduled to make next summer .
Perata's relevance to this story is to provide background for Benjamin and Brown's appointees, and to remind readers that they've repeatedly handed sweetheart deals to Perata's friends and major campaign donors -- deals, by the way, that also turned out to be very controversial.
It's true that Signature Properties passes out a lot of campaign contributions. But the company gives more to the senator than any other politician by far. In fact, campaign records show that Signature and its partner in the Oak to Ninth deal, Reynolds and Brown, donated $175,800 to Perata and campaigns associated with him from 2000 through 2006, making them the senator's third biggest East Bay donor.

-- Robert Gammon

Posted by BG on 12/20/2007 at 9:49 AM

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