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."

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