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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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.

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