Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The much-celebrated, much-derided, much-delayed Albuquerque Rapid Transit project has suffered another major setback.
During a Thursday news conference, Mayor Tim Keller announced a hold in the project pending inspection of the city’s 15 60-foot electric buses, manufactured by BYD, the Chinese manufacturer also known as Build Your Dreams. The buses are manufactured at the company’s California-based North America subsidiary.
Keller cited brake failures and other equipment malfunctions discovered during recent driver training and testing as reasons for the inspections of bus operating systems, which will be conducted by city mechanics over the next month.
Describing the situation as a major stumbling block, Keller said the buses appear to be unsafe “at any speed.”
“We are not going to let these buses on our streets until we are 100 percent sure they’re safe,” Keller said. “And what the tests found is that, today, several of them are not. We’re testing the buses through an inspection process and we want to make sure nobody gets hurt either riding these buses or driving these buses.”
BYD officials dispute Keller’s assessment that the buses are unsafe, saying in a statement to the Journal that the company’s 40-foot buses were approved in 2014 by the Federal Transit Administration’s Altoona Testing Facility in Pennsylvania.
“While we await the final Altoona testing approval for our 60-foot buses, Altoona reviews many bus items, including safety, but they largely focus on reliability and structural integrity,” the statement reads. “BYD buses are safe and built to strict Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and have passed FMVSS brake testing and all other testing required for revenue service.”
The BYD statement goes on to say that the buses are powered by the company’s iron-phosphate batteries that are fire safe, non-toxic and environmentally friendly.
City officials have informed BYD that they have one year to “work through these challenges, to try and take a path of least resistance” in order to move forward, Keller said.
“I’m running out of patience with them,” he said of the company.
Training and testing for the 230 ABQ Ride drivers who would operate the ART electric buses on a nine-mile stretch of Central Avenue started in late July.
During those sessions, according to Bernie Toon, the city’s director of transit, the agency discovered multiple mechanical issues with the buses.
“What we found during the first week was that buses had air conditioning outages and door malfunctions,” Toon said. “We were communicating these issues to BYD when bolts began to fall off doors, and rear doors would open during bus operation without any action by the driver. As a result, our mechanics started to look for the causes of these problems and began identifying new problems.”
BYD officials said it is not uncommon for any bus vendor to have issues and to continue to make repairs on buses after the city takes possession. The company said in the statement that it continues to design, implement, research, address any client issues with solutions and “use our lessons learned to improve and advance the technology and client-specific requests and issues.”
ABQ Ride mechanics discovered in October that the center and rear brakes had zero air pressure, yet the bus was able to move.
“This should never happen,” Toon said. “It means that the center and rear axle brakes were not working – the buses were relying on their front brakes alone. This is a fleet-wide issue and poses significant safety concerns that have to be resolved by BYD before any member of the public rides on these buses.”
Toon said BYD has been troubleshooting the issue, but has not yet proposed any solutions.
BYD told the Journal that the braking issue was just brought to company’s attention three weeks ago and that “experienced engineers have designed a brake solution for the agency to meet their needs.”
Officials at BYD also said that inspections have already taken place at the Lancaster, Calif., manufacturing plant and separately by ABQ Ride before the buses left the plant. Another inspection by the agency took place once they arrived in Albuquerque, BYD officials said.
“BYD is continuing to work with all involved entities including the independent inspection team to address and resolve any issues,” the company said.
In addition to the other problems, Toon said BYD has also failed to construct supplementary charging stations on the route as part of an agreement with the city some months ago to address a problem with battery life.
The contract calls for buses that can operate for 275 miles, but city officials have said the buses can’t go more than 177 miles before they need recharging.
City officials said earlier this year that BYD would fund the addition of two charging stations at the Uptown Transit Center, two at Tramway and Wenonah SE, and two at Unser and West Central.
Keller and ABQ Ride officials expressed optimism earlier this year that the project could move forward with interim bus service starting in late fall or winter using fewer electric buses than originally planned. But the “grounding” of the electric bus fleet will place those plans on hold.
Keller said the city is actively looking at potential alternative bus options for the ART fleet should it become necessary, including acquiring buses from other cities or vendors, or even continuing with BYD if it were determined that the problems were limited to just a few buses.
“We’ll know that in the next month. We’re going to figure out which path we’re going to go on long-term for this project,” Keller said. “We’re not going to continue this back and forth with the bus company much longer.”
The ART project, including associated utility and road work, comes at a cost of $135 million.
In addition to $14 million in federal funds designated to reimburse expenses related to construction on Central Avenue, the city has received $75 million from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts Program for the project.
Under the contract, the city does not have to pay BYD until final delivery of buses. The city originally ordered 20 buses for the project.
BYD officials said in the statement to the Journal that it plans to continue daily communications and weekly meetings with a group of experienced engineers, operators and other technical personnel, and the city.