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State of the ART: Keller anticipates fall rollout

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

It’s a long way from the finish line, but a proposed path forward exists for the much-maligned Albuquerque Rapid Transit system to begin interim operation as soon as the fall, Mayor Tim Keller said Wednesday.

Keller told the Journal that ART could start with a limited route using fewer electric buses than originally planned. The entire nine-mile Central Avenue route – using a combination of the electric buses and compressed natural gas or clean diesel buses – could be in operation as soon as winter.

“There’s no doubt that ART has been a challenge for the heart of our city, in that we’ve taken a hit in many ways in the construction,” Keller said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon at the Yale Bus Depot with one of the electric buses as a backdrop. “It remains a hardship but we actually have our shoulder to the wheel, and we are working very hard to progress steadily to get this project completed.”

The proposed plan, Keller said, is contingent on negotiations with Build Your Dreams, the Chinese company that is contracted to deliver at least 20 fully electric, 60-foot articulated buses. The city wants to amend the contract to reduce that number due to the many delays and problems it has had with the company, and seek additional buses from another manufacturer.

The plan would call for the city to conduct a bidding or request-for-proposals process with other bus manufacturers to deliver the remaining buses needed to operate the entire route. The additional buses would be natural gas buses or clean diesel, instead of the electric buses BYD is building.

The BYD electric buses, worth nearly $23 million, were originally scheduled for delivery last year. But so far the city only has received 15 of the 20, and Keller said some of those buses must be sent back due to issues.

Keller said the city has looked into severing the contract with BYD, sending back all of the buses and starting over. But that could endanger federal funding and cost the city millions of dollars. Another option was to keep working with BYD and wait for full delivery of 20 buses from BYD. However, Keller said that option might delay delivery until winter 2019, as federal funding rules require the electric buses undergo testing at the Altoona Bus Research and Testing Center in Pennsylvania.

Under the contract, the city does not have to pay until final delivery of buses.

Bus problems

Nolan Meadows, a fleet maintenance specialist for the city, walks around one of the Albuquerque Rapid Transit buses at the Yale Bus Depot on Wednesday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Many of the delays and problems surrounding the project center on the electric buses. Albuquerque had been projected to become the first city in the nation to run all-electric 60-foot buses as part of a “proven technology.”

Keller said the city and company have “been addressing most of our major concerns that we raised in our first reality check with them.”

But, “the buses are still not up to standard for what they were contracted for,” he said.

One of the biggest issues is the battery life.

“This is something where at least we agree there is a problem. BYD is now being fairly straightforward with us. The issue is the buses still don’t hold a charge that they were ‘spected’ for. This is the reality.”

The contract calls for buses that can operate for 275 miles, but city officials have claimed the buses can’t go more than 180 miles before they need recharging.

That means adding more charging stations, adding more buses or both, Keller said.

Other problems have ranged from cracks in exterior panels and battery casings to leaking wheel hubs.

ART has been billed as a project that would transform Central Avenue into a rapid transit corridor with a stretch of bus-only lanes and stations. The project, including associated utility and road work, comes at a cost of $135 million.

The city has been counting on $75 million from the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Program for the project.

Keller said the administration remains optimistic that the city will receive federal funding through the FTA, but no funds have been promised yet.

He said Congress has appropriated the money for the grants and he hoped for an answer on funding from the federal government sometime during the summer.

The project meets funding criteria, and “everything is in DC’s hands” as far as information required for the funding, he said.

“The funding question is no longer in our court,” Keller said. “It’s exclusively the feds’ decision at this point. We have crossed every ‘t,’ dotted every ‘i’ and we have met every criteria for that project.”

He also said federal funding is not contingent on having all buses and the entire system running.

Driver training

Major construction on bus stops and road work is complete.

According to Lawrence Rael, the city’s chief operating officer, some minor work will take place over the next couple of months.

That work includes installation of mobility signage that makes it easier for pedestrians to cross the street after exiting the bus, and the completion of striping.

Crews will also install video monitors and surveillance cameras to increase the level of security on platforms, Rael said.

“Those systems will soon be plugged into the Real-time Crime Center, so that law enforcement can have eyes on Central Avenue for the entire route, which is a nice amenity as it relates to passenger safety,” Rael said. “We’ve also determined that the traffic and bus signals in the corridor, integral to the transit system, were not implemented, so we’re working now on a critical path with the contractors to ensure that the timing of the lights and signals works so the buses can operate properly through the corridor.”

Bernie Toon, director of the city’s transit department, said motorists on Central Avenue can soon expect to see drivers training on the new equipment.

“In the coming months, our drivers are going to start going though a 12- to 14-week training program that will teach them to use the ART corridor and the bus platforms,” Toon said. “That means you’re going to begin to see more buses in the lanes come mid-summer. While buses are on those training routes, we’ll be working on the timing of the lights, so that we can make sure the traffic patterns are as efficient as possible.”

Toon also said the department will begin working on an education campaign that will help motorists and pedestrians stay safe and learn how to use the new traffic lanes and transportation platforms.

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