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Recent reports on AC Transit are mistaken

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.

Posted in actransit, bart, brt, california, news, oakland, taxes, transportation.

19 Responses

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  1. digdug says

    actually gammon is entirely correct about one thing: AC Transit *has* grown increasingly reliant on taxpayer funds. Take a look at their farebox recovery: 19.5% in 2003-04, 16.9% in 2007-08. AC is not alone in this trend, but give gammon credit for at least one correct fact.

  2. dto510 says

    Farebox is only one measurement, and it excludes capital costs. How can AC Transit be “increasingly dependent” on taxpayer funds if its overall tax funding has decreased, while service hasn’t decreased substantially and ridership is up? By a different but more telling measurement, public subsidy per rider, AC Transit does very well, requiring less than half BART’s per-rider taxpayer subsidy. And let’s not forget that BART receives a majority of all Alameda County transportation funds (including local highway funding).

  3. Peter Smith says

    i’m an avowed BRT hater, and this post is just bizarre. 2003 is not a ‘recent year’? This year and 2005 are not ‘recent year’s?

    do you even know what you’re writing?

    besides, any project that doesn’t take care of pedestrians and cyclists, first, should not be implemented, period. this BRT project does not provide appropriate infrastructure for bicycles, and as such, should not be implemented.

    if the design is done so that it supports bicycle travel over private car travel, then it may deserve another look.

  4. Peter Smith says

    ok, on whether or not just six years ago should be considered ‘in recent years’ or not, let’s drop that for now. we’ll get to the airmen in just a minute, sir.

    just to clarify, you are disagreeing with this assertion?

    But that was not enough, so the agency slashed service across the board. From 2002 to 2007, it cut its total number of bus lines from 157 to 93, thus reducing the number of neighborhoods it serves. During the same period, it also downsized its fleet from 771 buses to 632, retiring hundreds of older buses as the new Van Hools came on line.

  5. Peter Smith says

    The above quote [contains] numbers that, while true, do not support the conclusion that AC Transit “repeatedly slashed service.”

    So, from the 5 to 6-year period of 2002 to 2007, AC Transit cut service multiple times, and with this you agree, but this still does not support the conclusion that AC Transit ‘slashed service repeatedly’?

    Give it up, man – this is embarrassing. Just admit you were wrong, you lied, whatever. This ain’t the definition of ‘is’.

  6. Peter Smith says

    your argument is fraudulent — you don’t care about people, you care about ‘vehicle revenue hours’. a service cut is anytime service is cut — and people suffer from these cuts, you can be sure, regardless of whether these cuts help make a statistic on a page more beautiful to you. read through AC Transit’s news releases over the past few years and you’ll see multiple service cuts.

    lines, stops, neighborhoods, quality of service, frequency of service – you name it — there are myriad ways to cut service, and it seems AC Transit has utilized them all over the past few years, but you can’t be bothered by stubborn little things like facts – regardless of who comes to rely on AC Transit bus service. they’re just people after all, right?

    once you start a service, and you allow people to become dependent on that service, you cease to be in a position to have rights, and you gain responsibilities. under the leadership of Rick Fernandez, AC Transit has repeatedly slashed service, while raising fares. he belongs in jail. AC Transit has continually abdicated its responsibilities in recent years. the entire board should resign, and so should you – for defending Fernandez and AC Transit, and for attempting to mislead us.

    In her ruling, issued Friday, Laporte said the MTC’s funding decisions were one reason AC Transit had suffered more service cuts between 2003 and 2007 than any other Bay Area system.

  7. Markko says

    Okay, does anyone want to try to defend AC on this? 16.9% farebox is an embarrassment. No, transit isn’t supposed to turn a profit, but c’mon, AC has the highest bus fares in the Bay Area, and the second highest population density of any Bay Area operator, and they can’t do better than 16.9%??? VTA used to get beaten up about their 15% farebox ratio, but VTA at least had the explanation of an extremely low density, car oriented service territory as well as Board policy to keep fares low. What’s AC’s excuse?

  8. dto510 says

    No, I don’t think 2003 is recent. Cutting service six years ago does not qualify as “slashing service repeatedly in recent years.”

    BRT is a pedestrian improvement – bus riders are pedestrians. BRT will include bike racks both at stations and on the bus. Bus riders far outnumber cyclists, though. Why is it more important to you to promote bicycling than bus riding? Telegraph won’t get bike lanes if BRT is not implemented, so why make bike lanes a key criteria for the project?

  9. Markko says

    huh? look, you don’t need an advanced degree in transportation engineering to have a valid opinion about what sort of service AC transit should run, but if you want to talk about transit funding you really need to know what you’re talking about. Funding is the realm of accounting, not of opinion, and there’s quite a bit to the accounting that you need to understand better. There’s no shortcut, but try and

  10. Robert says

    Farebox recovery is only one measure, but capital costs serve only to increase the taxpayer subsidy. And the issue of the magnitude of the BART subsidy isn’t relevant, the issue here is with the increasing subsidy of ACTransit. While subisdy per rider is another way of looking at the data, a more meaningful statistic is the subsidy per passenger mile, where the numbers shift to BARTs favor.

  11. dto510 says

    Yes, I agree that capital costs represent a public subsidy, that’s why farebox isn’t a great measurement, because it excludes capital costs.

    Again, how can AC Transit be “increasingly dependent on taxpayer funds” when its overall tax take has decreased without a decrease in service or ridership?

    I disagree that subsidy per-passenger-mile is “more meaningful.” The value to the economy of transportation is per rider, not per mile (what is the economic benefit of a long commute?). From an environmental standpoint, the fact that people take BART long distances just shows how that system supports sprawl, and to say that longer trips are worthy of more subsidy is a judgement call that values suburbs over cities. Besides, with BART’s recent ridership meltdown and crazy capital spending sprees, their per-passenger-mile subsidy has probably increased greatly, while AC Transit’s ridership is up but taxpayer support is down.

  12. dto510 says

    I don’t see where I’m wrong. AC Transit’s net tax subsidy has decreased enormously, yet ridership is up. How can that mean increasing dependence on taxpayer funds? Thanks for the links, though.

  13. Peter Smith says

    where did this quote come from? please provide a link:

    “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.”

  14. Peter Smith says

    ok, i found the link on that other blog. that’s a good start – you know, linking to sources and stuff.

  15. Peter Smith says

    ‘substantially cut service’? man, this entire post is just straight dishonest.

    i understand that BRT and Van Hools get people worked up, but do you actually have readers who put up with this straw man nonsense?


  16. dto510 says

    The above quote (from a different article than the one I am discussing) are numbers that, while true, do not support the conclusion that AC Transit “repeatedly slashed service.”

    Yes, AC Transit cut and consolidated many lines. The number of lines is not the same as the amount of service. AC Transit’s revenue hours decreased six percent from 2003 to 2005, and haven’t fallen even a half percent since. A six percent decrease in service since the dot-com boom isn’t that bad, it doesn’t amount to “slashing service,” and the decrease all happened at once, so it was not “repeatedly” cut. Ridership, again, has increased substantially in the last few years.

  17. dto510 says

    What is so hard to understand? AC Transit cut overall service only once, in 2003 following the dot-bomb. The number of lines is not a measurement of service, vehicle revenue hours are. They haven’t gone down even half a percent since then. And ridership is up, so more people are being served. Mr. Gammon’s statement that AC Transit “repeatedly slashed service… in recent years” is wrong.

    My source is the MTC report, from Markko above.

  18. dto510 says

    Here’s another way to look at it. If service were measured by the number of lines, rather than the amount of service, would AC Transit be doubling their College Ave service if they split the 51 line in two?

  19. dto510 says

    Changing lines while maintaining service hours and increasing ridership is not slashing bus service. Certainly, some people’s service has been cut, but other people’s service has increased, and overall service is steady and ridership is up. AC Transit is a huge agency – with two million potential riders, there are always going to be changes to individual lines. More lines and more stops means more costs without more ridership, and the number of stops or lines is not a measure of service. You can disagree with the agency’s choices about specific lines, routes, schedules, etc., but there’s no moral failure in AC Transit’s pretty decent service record in recent years.

    Yes, AC Transit service suffered a 6% cut in 2003. And basically no decrease since then. And it’s true that the MTC’s funding decisions were mostly responsible. While I’m also happy that AC Transit has the opportunity to hire new leadership, I really don’t see how you conclude that Rick Fernandez is a criminal.