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Editorial: With $89 million in hand, the real test for ART success is still down the road

Albuquerque taxpayers can breathe a $75 million sigh of relief with official word last week that the federal government has finally coughed up the long-awaited money for the controversial Albuquerque Rapid Transit project. That’s in addition to $14 million in federal money announced in June to help with construction costs along Central Avenue.

The Mayor Tim Keller administration, of course, says it worked tirelessly with the Federal Transit Authority to get the project funding across the finish line. And it deserves credit for that.

But it should be noted that former Mayor Richard Berry, who made ART a signature project of his administration, always expressed confidence that the city had done what it needed to do to get the money and that the delays were part of the dysfunction we see day in and day out in Washington, D.C.

He was on sound ground. Although the money wasn’t formally “promised,” federal officials pointed out there had never been a case in which a project that had reached this stage in the process had not been funded, and that they had given the city a letter of “no prejudice” to proceed with construction.

Without question, ART has had plenty of speed bumps. Businesses along Central suffered through construction, which wasn’t exactly a picture of efficiency. Some closed.

After taking office Dec. 1, the Keller administration said there were serious flaws in the design and construction. But in the rear view mirror, it appears those concerns were somewhat overblown and not out of line with what could be expected from a multimillion-dollar project of this magnitude.

And, of course, there are still problems with delivery of the new 60-foot articulated electric buses that will navigate the new ART lanes and stops along Central. Buying a first-off-the-line product from any manufacturer comes with risks, and in this case it’s clear that California-based BYD wasn’t quite ready for prime time with the new technology. There have been a host of problems, from insufficient battery range to leaking transmissions and body cracks.

A city Inspector General report also raised serious concerns about the city’s slipshod inspection process for the buses at the manufacturer’s California plant, and questioned whether corners were cut and compliance issues fudged for political expediency.

Still, city officials and representatives of the bus manufacturer are sounding a lot sunnier these days and appear to be working toward resolution. In fact, drivers are now training on the buses as they move quietly – that’s right, no noise or exhaust – up and down the city’s main drag.

This project has been in the works for a long time. It was a case in which Berry, a Republican mayor, worked closely with the Democratic Obama administration to move to a new chapter in public transportation in Albuquerque. He repeatedly won strong, bipartisan support from the City Council.

Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation jumped in to help with the final push to get the money.

With construction done, buses on the street for driver training and the funding in hand, only time will tell whether Berry was a visionary in predicting ART would be a transformative project attracting huge investment and redevelopment along Central. Will ART be the envy of cities worldwide? Or an empty, 60-foot rolling joke?

As always in politics, success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. Last-minute work by others aside, a decade from now, we’ll know whether Berry gets the credit – or the blame.

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.