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Shock and Awe: The Little Hybrid Engine That Couldn't 

Wednesday, Jan 8 2014
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Numerous calls to New Flyer officials have not been returned — for this and other stories. Both Reiskin and Haley reacted with incredulity when asked for any paperwork outlining this arrangement, which both men took pains to explain was "not a deal."

Asked how prevalent this type of not-a-deal is, Reiskin says he didn't know and couldn't speculate on New Flyer's motivations for offering the no-risk deal or for why it went exclusively with BAE. Haley affirms he never asked why the bus company would feel compelled to make such an offer — the likes of which he couldn't recall in his 30-plus year transit career. But "I didn't get into that with them."

Haley further admits Muni's decision to request BAE propulsion systems over Allison in these 50 buses was not based on a lick of analysis.

The BAE system runs about $45,000 less per bus than an Allison system — but until Muni's BAE vs. Allison competition is actually undertaken, Haley concedes there's no way to know if BAE's initial discount will be offset by greater parts and maintenance costs.

Asked if it's possible that Muni just went to extraordinary lengths to rush-order 50 buses its own field-testing might subsequently reveal to be the inferior vehicles, Haley again concedes that, yes, it is.

All of this, he claims, was disclosed to both Federal Transportation Administration authorities and the Board of Supervisors. Numerous calls to myriad FTA officials haven't been returned. But the text of Haley's most recent presentation to the feds merely notes the new buses, built to Muni's specs and subsidized with $28.5 million in federal grants, were slated to begin arriving in November.

They actually arrived in October. The intriguing arrangement allowing for this was not elucidated in writing.

One can pore over the 78-page legislative packet provided to members of the Board of Supervisors and be similarly blindsided upon learning that, at the time of the vote to fund, manufacture, and transport these 50 buses the 1,900 miles from Minnesota, they were already stashed across the bay. (Haley did, however, tell the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee on Oct. 23 that New Flyer has "begun the production of some of the buses and some of them are on their way to the Bay Area."). SF Weekly contacted every supervisor; only Scott Wiener and London Breed recalled being notified of this arrangement beforehand. Neither thought to ask for any paperwork regarding the matter — Muni officials claim there's none to be had — and both stand by their votes. Breed, however, admits "this definitely doesn't look good."

Her colleagues, having been left in the dark, are decidedly less sanguine. "Muni is kind of a rogue agency," says Supervisor Malia Cohen. "They just do what they want to do." Supervisor John Avalos calls the not-a-deal "very funky. For them to have a situation where the actual vehicles are parked across the bay waiting for us to vote on them makes me feel the wool was pulled over my eyes. What's the point of even having a legislative branch of government?"

None of the supervisors — not one — knew about the internal BAE vs. Allison competition that Muni short-circuited, even though they'd unanimously greenlit that "split" bus purchase, too. That detail was within the legislative packet. But the supervisors are deluged with legislative packets.

Certainly, no one appears to have read this one.

Asked to justify this latest purchase, Muni officials ballyhooed the "quiet operation" of BAE-equipped hybrids. In doing so, they — knowingly or unknowingly — regurgitated one of the company's talking points.

For a tank.

BAE boilerplate lavishes praise upon its hybrid vehicles' "low acoustic signature and quiet ride." San Franciscans living along well-traversed bus routes will likely be thankful. Denizens of rougher locales, unable to hear the approach of stealthy BAE hybrid tanks equipped with "man-accessible turrets" and the "Commander's Independent Weapon System" will be less so.

In fact, many of the pitches BAE uses to flog hybrid tanks are remarkably similar to those used to extol hybrid buses. While the military is relatively unconcerned with its emissions standards and carbon footprint, increased fuel efficiency — allowing increased vehicle range — is an obvious plus. So is the maximum torque electric motors deliver at low speeds, providing lumbering vehicles with rapid acceleration and increased agility and maneuverability. As is the regenerative braking ability, which saves on maintenance and increases overall efficiency. And don't forget the "embedded diagnostics/prognostics" allowing mechanics to speedily bird-dog fixes.

In August, BAE trumpeted a successful round of testing of its hybrid Ground Combat Vehicle system. In October, it received a $688 million Army contract for its Paladin Integrated Management system (PIM) of self-propelled howitzers. Both, like a Muni bus, feature a 600-volt power system.

BAE has spent decades refining and developing hybrid systems in municipal vehicles largely funded by government transit dollars. Without being allowed to pop the hood on BAE's sensitive military prototypes, it's uncertain how much of the electromechanical DNA from transit systems has found its way up the chain to weapons systems.

You're not going to believe this, but SF Weekly was not granted such access. Interview requests for BAE personnel working across a variety of civilian and military departments went unfulfilled. Shelby Cohen, a BAE communications manager, declined to speak with us, writing that the hybrid systems within transit vehicles "are entirely different than the hybrid system aboard the PIM" howitzer.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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