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Unresolved problems stall ART, for now

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than a month after the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project took its ceremonial first ride, ART is still not fully operational, and Mayor Tim Keller’s administration has been hinting at significant problems that must be resolved before full operations can begin.

Keller and his top aides have been alluding to these problems since they took office in December speaking about accessibility issues for the disabled and most recently telling a KOAT-TV reporter that there are mechanical issues with how the buses work. But they have generally declined to go into specifics, saying a deeper review of ART was needed.

But Keller appears to be ready to talk about those issues. His office has scheduled a briefing with reporters for Tuesday afternoon “to discuss the current status of ART, including unresolved issues that have been identified with the project.” Alicia Manzano, Keller’s interim communications director, declined on Monday to discuss the problems that have been discovered, saying those issues would be delved into at Tuesday’s news conference.

ART has been billed as a project that will transform Central Avenue into a rapid transit corridor with a nine-mile stretch of bus-only lanes and bus stations. The project — and associated utility and road work — comes with a $134 million price tag. The city has been banking on $75 million from the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program for the project, but that funding agreement has not yet been signed.

Questioned last week by City Council President Ken Sanchez about when ART would be fully operational, Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael told councilors he could not give them a definitive date.

“We are actively, as the mayor says, doing a deep dive into the entire project, everything from the construction of the program to the systems associated with operating ART to the equipment, etc. …,” Rael said. “We have met with the contractors and with a number of people associated, including some of the folks that were involved in the procurement to look at the entire program. Suffice to say that there are some issues that require us to do some modifications. We’re having the contractors put together that list of concerns and having conversations with them.”

Sanchez asked Rael whether those concerns would need to be resolved before the buses begin to operate.

“They absolutely have to be resolved,” he responded, later adding, “That’s part of the overall review that we’re doing with the contractors to ensure that the construction meets the needs of the public but also that the buses can operate safely within the structures that were built and that we have a system that works for everybody.”

Rael was also asked about driver confusion within the ART corridor, with councilors saying that drivers often don’t know whether to go or to stop or to turn right or left. Rael said a “huge education program” is needed for drivers. But he said there are also real structural issues that must be resolved on the corridor to ensure that pedestrians and drivers are safe and that the buses can traverse the corridor appropriately.

Keller was interviewed by KOAT-TV over the weekend and said, “There’s a couple issues with some of the stops you know, and I think unfortunately the buses, the mechanics of how the buses work, are presenting a real challenge.”

He wouldn’t elaborate on whether the bus batteries were the issue.

City Councilor Pat Davis said Monday that he had heard about problems with how the buses line up with some of the stations. And he said the city doesn’t yet have all of the buses.

ART will be the first of its kind all electric bus rapid transit in America. In November, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy awarded ART its gold Standard for Bus Rapid Transit Standard.

The city has previously said that it is expecting a total of 20 60-foot, articulated battery-electric transit buses. The city is using FTA funding to cover the $22.9 million cost of 18 of the buses. Former mayor Richard Berry said in August that Build Your Dreams Bus Company, the firm that is building the buses, is giving the city two additional buses for a year.

Berry and others went on a ceremonial first ride on one of the ART buses in late November. ART also offered free service to and from the Albuquerque BioPark’s River of Lights events.

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