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Editorial: ART a Johnny Cash song, but buses aren’t humming

It is now June 2018 – more than six months after the scheduled launch of the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project and more than eight months after the deadline for the buses’ arrival – and the city still doesn’t have the electric buses it needs to run a scheduled route.

Welcome back to the public’s recurring ART nightmare.

In our latest installment, a new city Office of Inspector General report reveals the first 60-foot electric bus unveiled in August by then-Mayor Richard Berry was actually a cobbled-together vehicle, using a frame and spare parts intended for another transit authority’s buses. The bus manufacturer, Build Your Dreams, appears to have pulled its Johnny Cash “One Piece at a Time” act after pressure from a top city administrator, who allegedly threatened to terminate the $22.9 million contract with the company if an initial bus wasn’t delivered in time for Berry to ride before his mayoral stint ended.

That left BYD in a bind. Frames intended for Albuquerque’s buses hadn’t yet been shipped from China. The OIG report says 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 also found the city’s quality assurance efforts were insufficient, helping to explain the dozens of flaws and mechanical failures with the electric buses BYD finally did ship. According to the OIG, city transit employees sent to BYD’s California plant to act as inspectors weren’t properly trained beforehand and didn’t get specific checklists tailored for the BYD buses. One worker spent two weeks at the plant without observing the assembly of a single bus destined for Albuquerque. Another took the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles to visit family for five days.

These revelations would be as comical as the song – if not for the city investing $135 million in the project, tearing up Central Avenue, inconveniencing drivers and hurting many businesses along the nine-mile route.

One wonders whether the city could have avoided many of the problems it’s now grappling with if it had just hired qualified inspectors from the get-go who would have flagged mechanical problems early and often. Instead, the city has received buses with a myriad of problems, causing the city to say it plans to send some back.

Mayor Tim Keller and his administration are still trying to get the project back in gear. Keller has been floating the idea of negotiating a divorce of sorts with BYD in which the city gets electric buses that are close to being truly ready and then contracts with another company to build the remaining buses it needs to fully launch ART. If he can pull that off, Keller has said, ART could be in full operation as soon as winter.

While this isn’t an ideal situation, it beats the decades it took Cash to put together his “psycho-Billy Cadillac.” It’s likely the best option Keller has and he should pursue it.

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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