ACT Transit produced a lot of news recently, because several important decisions were made. The Board voted for a non-binding resolution to “buy American,” service cuts were postponed while the agency sought to transfer Congestion Management and Air Quality funds from capital improvements to operations, and long-time General Manager Rick Fernandez resigned. If you learned about these decisions from the two local media outlets that cover AC Transit the most, the East Bay Express and Berkeley Daily Planet weekly newspapers, you would have read some very inaccurate statements about the agency.
The “Buy American” resolution passed by the Board (PDF) was proposed by Director Elsa Ortiz (East Oakland – Alameda) and strongly supported by new Director Joel Young (at-large). In her statement proposing the resolution, Director Ortiz called complaints about Van Hool buses “exaggerated” and made it clear that her resolution is an attempt to support local jobs rather than to stop buying European buses (“American-made” buses are actually made abroad anyway). The resolution is also non-binding. That did not stop Berkeley Daily Planet reporter Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor from declaring that the resolution, which is not a policy, “would be the death knell for AC Transit’s recent practice of buying buses exclusively from Belgian bus manufacturer Van Hool.” East Bay Express reporter Robert Gammon says that “the board voted to effectively end the agency’s controversial relationship with Belgian bus maker, Van Hool.” Those statements are simply wrong: no contracts were changed, though obviously staff is being directed to look at alternative sources for buses. Since AC Transit has no immediate plans to buy new buses, the effect of the nonbinding resolution is unclear. And for the record, AC Transit does not buy buses “exclusively” from Van Hool, but continues to purchase other manufacturer’s buses for what is a pretty diverse fleet (ACT does not source from Hayward bus manufacturer Gillig).
Rick Fernandez proposed swapping capital funds for operating funds to stave off 15% service cuts that had been proposed and discussed in a months-long public outreach process that the agency could undertake because it had ample cash reserves (by contrast, BART cut off-peak service 20% with no outreach). The Board rejected Fernandez’s recommendation to seek a funding swap with BART for Regional Measure 2 funds, and instead only asked that CMAQ funds, already dedicated to the organization, be reprogrammed from capital to operating. Because a big source of BRT funding, the state’s STIP contribution, is already in doubt, and there is no date certain for starting construction, it made sense to take some funds away from BRT because the agency will have to rethink the funding plan anyway. This was misinterpreted by people who don’t seem to like the BRT plan, with Mr. Allen-Taylor writing that it means “at least a one-year delay in construction of AC Transit’s long-planned Bus Rapid Transit line, with a possible scaling down of the proposal or even abandonment of BRT altogether.” That is claim is wishful thinking on behalf of the anti-transit Berkeley Daily Planet.
One statement in particular, from the East Bay Express’s Mr. Gammon (who, we cannot forget, penned a wildly inaccurate article about Van Hool and AC Transit last year), stands out for its falsehood. He writes:
AC Transit has repeatedly slashed service and raised fares in recent years, while requiring loans from other agencies to stay solvent and growing increasingly dependent on taxpayer funds to keep its buses running.
Not a single phrase in that statement is true. AC Transit hasn’t substantially cut service since the last recession, in 2003, which is not a recent year. Fares went up this year for the first time since 2005, but service has not yet been cut. AC Transit has not taken out a loan from other agencies, and has no plans to do so (he must be confusing AC Transit with BART), and is not “increasingly dependent on taxpayer funds.” AC Transit did successfully seek a parcel tax hike to make up for some of the state budget cuts it and other agencies suffered, but again unlike BART, AC Transit has not received any net increase in taxpayer support. (BART has also raised fares repeatedly. Come to think of it, if you replace AC Transit with BART in the statement, it becomes true.)
Finally, the departure of Rick Fernandez was used by these media outlets, who generally don’t like AC Transit, as validation of their positions. Mr. Allen-Taylor even interviewed leading BRT and Van Hool critic Joyce Roy about it. However, had he bothered to ask any of the pro-BRT activists that have been going to public meetings and organizing to support the agency, he would have found that they are also displeased by Mr. Fernandez’s job performance. Mr. Gammon says that Mr. Fernandez “resigned abruptly,” yet two paragraphs below writes that he “came to the Board several months ago, seeking a lucrative severance package.” Rick Fernandez’s departure could just as easily be interpreted as a statement of support for BRT, since Mr. Fernandez sought to reprogram much more money away from it than the Board approved.
It is disappointing that the East Bay Express and the Berkeley Daily Planet, leading reporters of the East Bay’s largest transit agency, are so blinded by their own biases about bus service that they report remote possibilities or questionable interpretations as settled fact. AC Transit is the lifeline of the East Bay, and though it certainly needs critical oversight, the resistance to its mission that local weeklies sometimes display is inappropriate for community-based papers. BART, on the other hand, regularly screws Oakland over, but the weeklies only pay attention when something rises to the level of a riot or a billion-dollar boondoggle. Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse: Mr. Allen-Taylor will not longer report on AC Transit, Oakland government or anything else – the Planet has laid off its reporting staff. Commentaries will continue, of course. Though the Planet’s firm editorial stances certainly colored their reporting, the loss of coverage of local issues will just make it harder for people to understand what’s going on at AC Transit or other public agencies.