Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Pressure from top city administrators to deliver an initial electric battery bus for then-Mayor Richard Berry to promote the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project last year led to the bus manufacturer cobbling together a vehicle that didn’t meet the city’s specifications, concluded the city’s Inspector General.
A new Office of Inspector General report states that a top city administrator allegedly “threatened” to terminate the city’s $22.9 million contract with bus manufacturer Build Your Dreams, BYD, if an initial bus wasn’t delivered in time for Berry to ride.
The pressure from the city to provide an initial bus “may have contributed to the further delay of receiving buses that complied with the contract,” the OIG report stated.
The first bus, received in August 2017, was assembled by BYD at its California plant using a “frame intended for buses being built for the (Antelope Valley Transit Authority in Lancaster, Calif).” Frames intended for the Albuquerque’s buses had not yet been shipped from China, the OIG report stated.
Additionally, BYD also decided to use “parts and pieces” intended for the Antelope Valley buses for that first ART bus. A transit employee told the OIG that BYD’s “core processes on manufacturing buses was altered to ensure delivery of the first bus by the deadline.” The employee further stated that the first bus was moved to whatever assembly station was available to ensure it was assembled in time.
Just days before Berry’s term ended Nov. 30, he took a ceremonial first ride on an ART electric battery bus, along with dozens of officials and citizens, on a trip to the city’s River of Lights event at the Botanical Gardens. The first bus was among those deployed for the River of Lights ride.
The OIG’s five-month-long review of the project looked at how the project unfolded and what went wrong along the way.
According to one employee interviewed, Berry’s “senior staff was adamant about having a bus transported to the City before the end of the administration.” The report described two people interviewed by the OIG who recounted a “tense” and “unusual” phone call between then-city Chief Operating Officer Michael Riordan and top U.S. officials from BYD, one the world’s largest electric battery bus manufacturers.
It wasn’t clear from the OIG report when the phone call occurred.
Riordan is on leave and couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. Several other city officials connected to the project have either retired or moved to a different city department.
BYD, which is headquartered in China, missed an Oct. 4, 2017, deadline for delivery of 18 electric battery buses under its $22.9 million contract for ART – a project Berry spearheaded. It still hasn’t delivered all buses promised.
But some buses were delivered in time for the River of Lights event.
Dozens of flaws
Electric battery buses that did finally arrive from BYD had dozens of flaws and mechanical failures, officials with Mayor Tim Keller’s administration announced in January, shortly after taking office.
That revelation raised questions because the city was supposed to have inspected the buses at the BYD manufacturing plant in Lancaster, Calif., before their transport.
But the OIG found that city transit employees sent to the California plant to act as inspectors weren’t properly trained beforehand. Nor were they provided specific checklists tailored for the BYD electric buses. In short, the city’s quality assurance efforts were insufficient, the OIG reported.
One employee, for instance, spent two weeks at the BYD plant without observing the assembly of a single bus destined for Albuquerque. Another inspector reported feeling “lost” during his first inspection at the plant. Another reportedly took the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles to visit his family for five days.
One inspector reported applying tape to mark flaws on the buses as they were being assembled, only to return the next day finding the tape removed and the flaws not corrected. One inspector went along for a road test, and the BYD bus died within half a block. One inspector said he was instructed to “watch” but not submit any inspection documents, according to the report.
For the five remaining BYD buses still undelivered, Keller’s administration has now hired an outside firm under a $20,000 contract to conduct the in-plant inspections – a practice the Journal found earlier this year was fairly common among transit agencies that have contracted for BYD buses.
The city transit employees sent to California for inspections racked up nearly $69,000 in travel and other expenses, the OIG report stated.
‘There was no transparency’
The first bus, Bus #1701, was deployed for an initial Aug. 8, 2017 unveiling by Berry and other city officials at Civic Plaza.
But two months earlier, the OIG found, some city transit officials noticed the bus had a different chassis and windows than what Albuquerque ordered.
“Typically, the first item that is provided by a contractor should be … used by the purchaser to assess and determine if there was compliance with all specifications,” the OIG report stated. “This did not occur in the purchase of the BYD buses, and in fact, City officials knowingly ‘accepted’ a bus that was manufactured on a platform and to the specifications of a bus intended for the (Antelope Valley Transit Authority) with the intent of using the bus for public relations, which included a publicity event involving the former Mayor and other publicly elected leaders and officials,” the OIG report stated.
“This was not within the contract,” the OIG wrote.
The city has not yet paid BYD for any of the buses. The first bus, #1701, along with several others from BYD, was also used to transport residents to the River of Lights display. It was labeled a loaner bus and ultimately was returned to the factory.
Berry declined to immediately comment on the allegations on Friday.
“There was no transparency,” Inspector General David Harper said Friday. “It was one of the many times there was a lack of transparency in this project.”
The OIG report on the ART project comes as the current administration of Mayor Tim Keller tries to salvage what has been billed as the first-of-its-kind project using 60-foot, electric battery buses. It is the largest public works project in Albuquerque’s history.
While some of the kinks in the construction end of the nine-mile project have been worked out, the troubled $135 million project along Central Avenue remains stalled, chiefly because of technical issues with the BYD buses that have been late in delivery.
BYD officials couldn’t be reached Friday but have told the Journal that the company is working diligently to fix the problems, and Keller recently said he’s hoping some of the buses will be rolling by this fall.
Bus #1701, along with several others from BYD, was later used to transport residents to the River of Lights display. It was labeled a loaner bus and ultimately was returned to the factory.
Asked Friday whether the Keller administration would take any action based on the report, communications director Alicia Manzano stated in an email: “Our legal team is evaluating the report and will provide an analysis with recommendations on the best course of action. This report is a clear summary of why we have encountered so many problems with ART, and we will continue to press for solutions.”