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ART project ‘a bit of a lemon,’ mayor says as problems mount

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Mayor Tim Keller and his administration say problems with the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project are so grave that they won’t even venture a guess on when the controversial project will be operational, although they are saying it will likely be many months before the electric bus system is up and running.

“The problems are much worse than I think anyone believed. … This project is a bit of a lemon,” Keller said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

While much of the attention to date has focused on federal funding for the project that has yet to materialize, Keller and Lawrence Rael, the city’s chief operating officer, outlined other major problems.

Portable generators, such as this one, were rented to charge ART buses because charging stations are not ready. The Keller administration stopped that practice after being informed that using the generators could compromise the equipment’s warranty. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Many of those problems center on the electric buses – including the fact that the city is currently not able to charge them. And Rael said that of the 20 buses that were supposed to be delivered by Oct. 4, the city has received only nine.

“Out of the nine buses that we’ve received, we have found issues associated with those buses, everything from mechanical failures to some inconsistencies in how the buses are put together,” Rael said.

Roughly 23 or 24 issues have been detected with each of the buses, he said, though not all of those are major.

City officials are also concerned with what they’re calling design and construction flaws along the ART route, one so serious city officials are exploring the possibility of reconfiguring an intersection.

City Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael talks at a news conference Tuesday about problems with the Albuquerque Rapid Transit bus system. At right is Mayor Tim Keller. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“The previous administration told the public it would be done by the end of their term,” Keller told reporters, explaining why he wouldn’t speculate on when the project would be completed and operational.

“In reality, it would be unrealistic to give a firm completion date. There have been too many issues that we’ve found, too many issues to tackle and too many players and contractors involved at this point to be able to give a definitive date, and at the end of the day there have already been too many broken promises with this project.”

While there are problems with the project, both Keller and Rael noted that the bus contractor, California-based Build Your Dreams bus company, doesn’t receive any of the $22.9 million owed for buses until it meets its contractual obligations.

Rael also told the Journal that the city hasn’t signed off on the construction or design for ART, meaning that contractors could be on the hook for some of the problems.

Build Your Dreams didn’t respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday.

As many as 24 problems have been identified in each of the nine electric buses that have been delivered out of the 20 that were supposed to have been delivered by Oct. 4, city officials say. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Former Mayor Richard Berry, who left office at the end of November, downplayed the problems outlined by the Keller administration.

“ART has been acknowledged by outside experts as one of the best designed transit projects in America, and that hasn’t changed,” Berry told the Journal in a written statement. “As I read the list of issues, I believe that taxpayers have contractual protections in place, and I am confident that the Keller administration can work with the bus vendor and others to resolve the issues and get the system up and running in a timely manner.”

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 $135 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.

Mayor Tim Keller uses his hands as he talks about the difference in levels between bus doors and Albuquerque Rapid Transit platforms during a news conference Tuesday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

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

ART buses were recently used to provide free transportation to and from the Albuquerque BioPark’s River of Lights exhibition. But Rael revealed Tuesday that under the Berry administration, the city was renting portable generators to charge the buses in order to use them for the River of Lights. He said the Keller administration stopped that practice after being informed that using the generators could compromise the equipment’s warranty.

The city can’t charge the buses because a third-party certification officer wouldn’t certify the chargers that have been installed.

“The chargers themselves are not operable because they’ve used what looks like Chinese equipment and probably a different standard for how they built these boxes,” Rael said.

In the short time that the buses were used, Rael said, a number of problems were found.

He said fully charged batteries on the buses are supposed to last for 275 miles, but the testing the city has done so far indicates that the charge is only good for 200 miles, which means that the city will need additional buses for ART unless that problem is resolved.

Also, according to Rael:

Mirrors on the buses are hitting the part of the platform holding up the canopies. Restraint belts that are used to keep wheelchairs locked in place while they’re in transit are in different locations in almost all the buses. And the battery cages that house the bus batteries are already starting to crack and separate.

Rael said the buses have not gone through the certification process in Altoona, Pa., which is required in order for the city to be reimbursed for them by the federal government. He said one of the ART buses put through the certification process did not pass.

The city is also concerned about two stations because of the distance between the intersection and the actual platforms.

At the Washington and Central platform, for example, the platform is so close to the intersection that a bus coming from the east side going west can’t make the approach without taking up the entire intersection, Rael said. He said the city is considering reconfiguring that entire intersection.

There are also problems with inconsistent heights on some of the platforms and the distance between the platform and where buses stop, both of which create problems for wheelchair access.

At the Atrisco station platform, meanwhile, buses sit at an angle to the platform because the road is sloped, and that could create problems for wheelchair users, Rael said.

“We do not have answers to every question and it’s going to take some time for us to get those answers,” Keller said.

But he pledged to resolve the issues, saying there’s no turning back on the project.

Council President Ken Sanchez and other city councilors were briefed on the problems Tuesday.

Sanchez said he hopes the contractors and the bus company work with the city to resolve the problems quickly.

“I don’t believe anything is insurmountable,” Sanchez said, but he added that he’s particularly concerned about the bus contractor and its failure to deliver on its contract.

“We need to do it right,” he said. “I’m just glad the administration is trying to address these issues.”