Letters for February 20-26 

Readers sound off on our story about AC Transit and its Van Hool buses.

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

Dishonest Journalism

I am deeply disappointed by Robert Gammon's article about AC Transit's Van Hool buses. I recently spent an hour and a half with Mr. Gammon providing detailed facts. However, he has chosen to listen to and report on comments from a limited number of our bus operators and the public. His report is, in large part, inaccurate, misleading and, subsequently, deplorably dishonest journalism.

AC Transit has garnered a reputation as one of the finest public transportation agencies in the world. For a record six times in eight years, our mechanics and operators were judged to be the best after international competitions. And as testament to sound business practices and skillful financial management, we have an A-plus rating with both Moody's and Standard & Poors, the nation's premier credit rating agencies.

The Gammon piece belies all of this with more ill-conceived conclusions than can be addressed here. However, considering my more than 32 successful years in bus transit, I feel compelled to at least point out some of his most glaring misstatements.

First, Gammon's premise that the agency has gratuitously ignored public safety and finances to acquire "dangerous ... foreign" buses is bordering on libel. The decision to purchase Van Hool buses resulted from competitive bidding. They were no more costly than what was available elsewhere. The American Public Transportation Association publishes a list of bus prices, which bears this out.

There has been no spike in passenger injuries on the Van Hools, as the article implies. In absolute terms, injuries are higher on the Van Hools because they are in service on our heaviest corridors that, by far, serve the most people.

The dot-com bust, 9-11, soaring fuel and medical costs forced all public agencies to streamline operations. AC Transit was no exception and, from 1997 to 2005, we reduced personnel, including 25 percent of management, and cut service by 17 percent. The cuts were careful and judicious. Service didn't take "a backseat to the agency's desperate attempts to balance its books." The cuts certainly had nothing to do with the purchase of buses, again as Gammon implies. In reality, we are providing more service today than before the cuts were made.

Buses are replaced on a regional pre-required schedule, and AC Transit, like every other transit agency, receives funds solely earmarked for that purpose. Because the money cannot be used otherwise, purchasing buses has no effect on our ability to deliver service, as Gammon would lead you to believe. However, by purchasing buses in the innovative way that AC Transit does, it actually provides for a positive cash flow to help with day-to-day operations.

Finally, Gammon dismisses our "fare box recovery" rate as being "below par," suggesting our agency is somehow inefficient. There is no "par" with fare box recoveries. The recovery rate is predicated on what an agency does to address public demand. For instance, AC Transit offers a host of services including discount passes and/or routes with low ridership, such as Welfare-to-Work and All Nighter Transbay lines, that are essential to the public well-being, but hardly pay for themselves. Still, our overall farebox recovery rate of 17 percent is laudable compared to the 12 percent or less fare box recovery rate of some Bay Area transit agencies. This is another explicatory detail that Gammon, somehow, neglected.

Last week [January 23], it was good to see Gammon at our Board meeting. It was a first for him and perhaps explains why he is so uninformed about this agency's policies, finances, and the spirited efforts of thousands who work to keep clean, safe, reliable buses on the streets.

Regrettably, regardless of the bus type, my experience with twelve different bus manufacturers over the years has shown that there will be those who like certain buses and those who don't. It's human nature and to be expected. However, the public is owed honest, analytical debate on the issue. To pepper us with deceptive data and half-baked conclusions is truly a disservice to AC Transit and the public, and, sadly, further tarnishes the integrity of journalism.

Rick Fernandez, General Manager, AC Transit

Robert Gammon Responds

I have decided to address what you referred to as "glaring misstatements." The record clearly shows that your criticisms are inaccurate.

Records that your agency provided me 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 drivers shared those 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.

You said "the decision to purchase Van Hool buses resulted from competitive bidding." But you and your staff steered the contract 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. 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.

You say there was no "spike" in rider injuries, yet AC Transit's own 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.

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.

You say that your agency uses funds "solely earmarked" for bus purchases to buy Van Hools. But AC Transit takes federal funds earmarked for bus purchases and uses them on maintenance for its 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. Your records 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.

You call AC Transit's 17 percent fare box 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 fare box recovery, not a "laudable" one.

Finally, I find it interesting that you said it was "good to see" me at January 23'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.

Complain Today

Thank you for your Van Hool bus story! I hate these buses and so does everyone I've talked to on them. The windows are dangerous too! Recently while I rode one, the large window kept flapping wide open at the bottom — these are large low windows and someone is going to lean against one and fall out! Also, everyone hates sitting on the high platform seats, because if the bus had to brake suddenly, you would be thrown down several feet and break your neck! And I have to literally crawl down off these high seats to avoid falling. Your story says AC Transit has not received many complaints, so I just went to the AC Transit web site and wrote a complaint — I urge everyone who hates these buses to do the same, today! Thank you.

Deborah Houy, Berkeley

Unsafe Even for the Seated

I have multiple disabilities, plus two injuries, neck and knee. The seats for disabled/elderly are not just too high, but often too narrow and occupied by able-bodied persons. I cannot balance on a narrow seat. Also, with those jerks who start the buses before you can be seated, I was once thrown against another passenger: a young lady about one third my weight: a good way to disable another person.

Garth Tuttle, Oakland

Small and Scary

I ride on the Number 11 to and from downtown five days a week. More often than not, we get one of the buses from hell. They are uncomfortable, too small, and very scary. I find it hard to believe that Mr. Fernandez can straight out lie about a survey that says riders like these buses. No one I have talked to on the ride to and from work has had anything good to say about these rolling disasters. I was crippled up on crutches for a few months and could not ride the bus when it was one of these monstrosities. Now that I'm healed up, they still scare me. With the AC Transit system in such debt, why did Mr. Fernandez opt to buy such expensive, non-productive equipment? I know AC has a long-term deal, but that is one deal that needs to be breached.

John W. Sandifer, Oakland


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