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Editorial: Myriad problems with ART are hard to swallow

It’s much more than a bump in the road.

The much-celebrated, much-derided Albuquerque Rapid Transit bus project down the middle of Central Avenue has hit a roadblock. Make that several.

And to get things back in alignment means finding out who knew what when, and how the city and its partners in this project are going to make things right.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller spent Tuesday, his 40th day in office, at a news conference enumerating myriad problems with the project, a centerpiece of the Richard Berry administration, saying it’s “a bit of a lemon.” And while electric bus company Build Your Dreams, aka BYD, has stepped up and said “our team in California and the team we have on the ground in Albuquerque will address every identified issue and deliver the world-class buses we are known for. Taxpayers will not pay a dime until we do,” there are a lot of questions to answer now that should have been addressed weeks, even months, ago. And not just by BYD but by HDR Engineering, Dekker/Perich/Sabatini architects, Bradbury Stamm Construction and the city.

It’s going to take more than a spoonful of sugar to turn these sour versions of events into more than the current undigestible he-said/he-said:

• The city has just nine of the promised 20 60-foot reticulated electric buses from BYD, a Chinese company. All were supposed to be delivered Oct. 4. Lawrence Rael, the city’s chief operating officer, says the rest are in various stages of assembly, and “No. 20 is still in the box.” Doug Turner, who is representing BYD, says globally the company built 17,000 electric buses last year on assembly lines and they do not come in boxes.

• Each of those nine buses has 23 to 24 problems of varying degrees.

• Rael says those include a lack of uniformity (fare boxes with different electrical connections, wheelchair locks in different spots), shorts that disabled a bus, leaking axle joints and shoddy battery cages. Turner says BYD has a team in Albuquerque addressing issues, including that axles are purposely overfilled before buses are driven to destination cities.

• The buses are supposed to hold a 275-mile charge; Rael says inaugural runs show it’s 200 miles, necessitating additional buses and midday charging at peak electrical rates. Turner says the city has yet to run the buses the length of the route.

• A bus from this fleet was sent to Altoona, Pa., to have its durability certified. Rael says it failed; Turner says it was pulled early because it showed premature wear, has been retooled and will be back for testing this month. Certification is required for federal funding, and Albuquerque is banking on $75 million from the feds.

• The charging stations are not being used. Rael says parts are made in China and do not meet U.S. standards, came with instructions in Mandarin and an official has refused to certify their installation. Turner says they meet higher European standards, are being used in several other states and like a cellphone come equipped with digital instructions in multiple languages.

• The city instead rented generators and powered up the buses for the River of Lights event. Rael says the new administration then garaged all nine upon learning it may have voided the warranties; Turner says the generators are used to charge the buses as they are driving from the factory to their destinations and the warranties are not compromised.

• Rael also says the platform at Atrisco is not level and wheelchairs will roll off; the platform at Washington does not allow room for the bus to maneuver and the intersection needs to be moved; other platforms are too high or low to line up with wheelchair lifts; bus mirrors smack into the canopies at passenger platforms. HDR, Dekker/Perich/Sabatini and Bradbury Stamm have yet to address these concerns publicly.

• The required agreement with the Federal Transit Administration has yet to be signed. Rael took a team to Forth Worth to get it nailed down. He also plans to bring in Build Your Dreams’ leadership team next week.

• The signage and public education components have yet to bear fruit; in the short time it was operating, drivers made prohibited turns in front of buses and were hit.

• The Keller administration won’t even offer a guess on when the system will be up and running but agrees it is likely months.

The $135 million ART project on a roughly nine-mile strip of Central from Unser to Louisiana was touted as one of the most forward-looking mass transit designs in the nation, key to revitalizing the corridor and supposed to be operational by the end of 2017. Understandably, Berry wanted it running before he left office Nov. 30. But unbeknown to festive River of Lights riders – and the taxpaying public – it was far from ready for prime time.

The project has had its vocal critics from the start, but the City Council overwhelmingly gave the project a green light, and more than once. Councilors, along with the Berry administration, bear some responsibility – specifically, where was oversight of a $135 million project many have been highly critical of from Day One?

It’s now up to Keller and his team to move beyond raising problems to figuring out how we came to this intersection of good intentions, optimistic promises and a transit project that can’t be put into gear yet. And to also get those responsible to step up and deliver so we can get it out of park.

Myriad problems with the bus project are hard to swallow

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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