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Mayor pulls the plug on electric bus deal

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The city of Albuquerque is pulling the plug on the Chinese manufacturer contracted to supply 60-foot electric buses for the much-maligned and delayed Albuquerque Rapid Transit project.

Mayor Tim Keller, meeting with Journal editors and reporters Monday, announced the city’s plans to reject and return all 15 of the electric buses manufactured by BYD, also known as Build Your Dreams. The buses are manufactured at the company’s California-based North American subsidiary.

Mayor Tim Keller holds up a copy of the letter that the city is sending to BYD. Director of Transit Bernie Toon stands next to the mayor. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Keller said the city formally notified the company of its intentions Tuesday.

Last month, Keller announced a hold on the project pending inspection of the buses, citing brake failures and other equipment malfunctions discovered during driver training and testing.

“When we started running the buses on test runs, we found major problems with the battery range, the brakes and some electrical issues,” Keller said. “They seem to be things that were already on the ‘to be fixed list,’ but they started getting worse.”

Keller said city officials have no confidence that the issues regarding battery life, an initial problem with the buses, are “something we can overcome.”

The city has been actively looking at alternative bus options. Keller said the city has placed an order for 10 new, nonelectric buses from a “well-established American company that makes buses all the time.”

Keller said those buses would come at less cost. But that also means more wait time – about 18 months for delivery.

Charging stations for the Albuquerque Rapid Transit bus system lie idle along Central earlier this year. Mayor Tim Keller said they have given up on the BYD electric buses and will switch to diesel or gas buses.

“No one will make an electric bus to our specifications because they say it’s not possible,” Keller said. “No other company will do it. There’s no option for electric. We’ll go with a version of clean diesel or gas, then we’ll look to phase in electric once the technology catches up.”

Gerges Scott, BYD’s Albuquerque representative, disputed some of Keller’s assertions in a company statement to the Journal, saying the “BYD buses and batteries are safe.”

“We have worked with the City of Albuquerque from day one and dispute the Mayor’s statements regarding electric bus technology … While the Mayor and his team have hosted numerous high-profile press conferences undermining Albuquerque’s commitment to clean public transportation technology, we continue to stand by our product and the value we bring to Albuquerque and every other forward thinking community that has invested in our technology. The City has been talking to other companies for months, clearly demonstrating their intention to move away from clean transportation technology,” the statement reads.

“BYD electric buses and technology are being used all over the world safely and with great success; it’s unfortunate Albuquerque decided on this course of action.”

The contract with BYD 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.

Another issue, Keller said, is the batteries heating up when they are charged or used.

“The range is less in the summer, because the batteries overheat and then we can’t charge them,” he said.

In another concern with the battery system, Keller said they are stacked in a metal shelf and when overheated could cause a fire.

“We believe there’s not even close to adequate fire protection,” he said. “Right now, it would vent right in the middle of the bus and we would not be able to pull those out. They’re already heating up so they can’t take a charge. They’re not properly (stored) or cooled.”

BYD also has failed to construct supplementary charging stations on the route promised as part of an agreement with the city some months ago to address the problem with battery life.

And there’s more.

ABQ Ride mechanics discovered last month that the center and rear brakes on buses had zero air pressure, yet the vehicles still were able to move, relying on front brakes alone.

Other problems include: the lack of undercarriage protection, buses that wouldn’t stop when emergency doors were utilized, cracking on bus exteriors, mirrors not set up correctly, wiring problems, and of great concern – the electric handicap chair lock becomes unsecure when the driver turns on the air conditioner.

“We find that the fixes (from BYD) are half-measures,” said Bernie Toon, director of ABQ Ride. “There’s a class of issues that are ‘phantom electric issues’ that are incredibly difficult to fix because you have to literally start taking the bus apart to do it. You keep finding more problems.”

Add to that missed deadlines for delivery of the buses initially slated for October 2017 as well as promises to fix problems unkept.

“The mechanical pieces and issues we now find with the operation of the equipment are part of a long series of missed deadlines and missed issues with a company that I think have driven us to the point where we are today,” said Lawrence Rael, the city’s chief operating officer.

A resolution with BYD could end up in court, Keller said.

“Obviously, we very concerned about what we’ve been put through as a city by BYD,” he said. “I think down the road we’re interested in being fairly compensated for what we have been misled on these buses.”

The ART project, including associated utility and road work on Central Avenue, 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.

COO Rael said federal funding that the city has received for the project is not in danger, with the exception of about $6 million specifically earmarked for the purchase of electric buses. He said the FTA would work with the city, depending on what technology the city ultimately chooses.

“We’ve met with the FTA every other week since the mayor took office,” Rael said. “We’ve been with them every step of the way, including all of the issues with BYD. FTA wouldn’t say this publicly but have told us they are just as concerned about BYD as we are. There are other transit agencies across the country that are being courted by BYD for buses.”

Under the contract, the city did not have to pay BYD until final delivery of buses. The city originally ordered 20 buses for the project.

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