AC Transit Chief Is Out

General Manager Rick Fernandez quits two days after the agency's board effectively voted to stop buying the buses from hell.

AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez abruptly resigned last
week, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. But a
majority of the agency’s board members had grown disgruntled with
Fernandez in the past year and didn’t attempt to change his mind. His
resignation came just two days after the board voted to effectively end
the agency’s controversial relationship with Belgian bus maker, Van
Hool.

Longtime board member Greg Harper said “there was pressure building
on the board” against Fernandez, although he said there was “no
precipitating event” that prompted board members to become unhappy with
him. Harper added, however, that some board members were frustrated
that after months of discussing debilitating service cuts, Fernandez
suddenly came forward with an idea to use capital funds earmarked for
Bus Rapid Transit to ease the agency’s financial woes. The board could
have avoided a lot of public criticism if Fernandez had made the
proposal earlier.

Fernandez originally came to the board a few months ago, seeking a
lucrative severance package, Harper said, but after negotiations, he’s
walking away with less than what he wanted. For example, he will have
to repay the $500,000 in loans that the board awarded him so that he
could purchase his ex-girlfriend’s house (see “The House That AC
Transit Bought
,” 3/5/08). Under the loan terms, Fernandez is supposed
to repay the money within one year. But Harper said the board may allow
a twelve-month extension. “It’s going to have to be repaid by a date
certain,” he added.

The outgoing general manager assumed his position in 1999 and served
for a decade, generally enjoying the support of the board over the
years. But his tenure was marked by difficult times. 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.

Fernandez was partially responsible for the Van Hool debacle. In the
early part of this decade, he and the board decided they wanted a
European-style, three-door, low-floor bus because they believed it
would work best for Bus Rapid Transit. Fernandez and AC Transit
employees then embarked on a series of expensive junkets to Europe,
spending more than a $1 million of public funds.

But eventually, the agency was forced to reverse course when it
became clear that the Van Hool design was dangerous and accident prone.
Ultimately, the AC Transit board asked the Belgian company to make
buses that resemble American-made models. And then last week, the board
voted 6-1 in favor of a “Buy America” policy that could finally end AC
Transit’s deal with Van Hool before a single lane of BRT was ever
built.

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