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AC Transit buses sat empty during BART shutdown

17 percent of the agency's fleet sidelined with mechanical problems

During the BART shutdown earlier this month, as thousands of frustrated commuters waited hours for a ride across San Francisco Bay, 95 AC Transit buses sat empty.

The idle coaches, representing 17 percent of the transit agency’s 569-bus fleet, were “in the yard for mechanical reasons,” AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson said Friday.

“It is worrisome," said Chris Peeples, an AC Transit board member. "It indicates the age of our fleet.” He said the average AC Transit bus is 11 years old.

Johnson said the transit agency hustled to get people across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after an early morning fire halted BART's transbay service.

“We did everything we could do,” he said. “All roadworthy buses were in service.”

AC Transit ran 108 extra buses across the bridge, carrying 23,410 passengers, more than double the normal load, and let people on for free to speed up boarding. Other Bay Area transit agencies supplied another 18 buses to help ferry commuters.    

But BART commuters, who waited in long lines for buses to cross the bay, believed there weren’t enough.

“It's very frustrating,” Adam Thomas told KTVU the morning of June 14, after waiting 90 minutes for a bus in downtown Oakland. “They should have more extra shuttles.”

Cash-strapped transit agencies that rely on federal funding don't have large fleets of extra buses. The federal government restricts the number of spare buses an agency can purchase.

Peeples said half of AC Transit's spares should be able to hit the road in the event of an emergency. During the shutdown, 18 of AC Transit's 113 spare buses were available. Ninety more buses were pulled from existing routes, causing longer waits for those traveling in the East Bay. 

AC Transit board member Greg Harper said maintenance issues have plagued the aging fleet in recent years. 

“We've got many more buses out of service than we usually have,” Harper said. “Maybe if (the general manager) had the spares he needed, he wouldn’t have had to cut anything.”

AC Transit is in the midst of buying at least 65 new buses to update its fleet.

BART halted its transbay service June 14 after a fire near the West Oakland station melted a portion of the electric third rail. The cause of the fire, which began shortly after 2 a.m. at a construction site, remains under investigation.

Service wasn’t restored until 3:48 p.m., leaving 92,929 people stranded, many of whom were headed to the San Francisco Giants game or U.S. Open golf championship.

Transit officials agree BART’s transbay service is irreplaceable. It carries 184,000 riders under the bay every weekday. But officials also pointed to measures that could have carried more people to their destinations.

If one lane on the bridge had been dedicated to buses only, Peeples said, buses could have carried twice the number of passengers. He said AC Transit is now talking with the state Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission about the possibility of establishing a bus-only lane the next time BART's transbay service is shut down.

But transportation commission spokesman John Goodwin is not enthusiastic about the idea of closing a lane of car traffic and said it wouldn’t have worked during the recent BART shutdown.

“That requires a long lead time,” Goodwin said. “The bridge was jammed, and finding that balance between transit response and vehicle capacity is tough.”

But not as many drivers took the Bay Bridge as many assumed. From midnight to 3 p.m., 82,149 vehicles crossed the bridge. On the Thursday before the shutdown, a typical Thursday, 80,535 vehicles crossed during the same time, according to the transportation commission.

Between 6 and 11 a.m. on the day of the BART fire, traffic on the bridge dipped below levels from the previous week. Between 9 and 10 a.m., it dropped 27 percent.

That's because the Bay Bridge was at capacity, according to Michael Anderson, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of economics.

“A single lane can carry about 2,000 vehicles per hour,” said Anderson, who studies transportation. "Once you get past that, the density of cars on the road goes up, but the number of cars passing through a given point actually starts to fall.”

During the shutdown, the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge saw a 21.5 percent increase in traffic.

Entrepreneurs also helped fill the void that BART left. On his way from San Francisco to Oakland that day, BART board member Tom Radulovich said he saw a motorcyclist with an extra helmet offering rides for $20.

Radulovich took AC Transit instead. But on the way back, tired of waiting in line, he hopped in a private shuttle that was offering rides across the bridge for $5. 

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