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Editorial: ABQ and bus maker BYD locked in a costly game of chicken over troubled ART

Fasten your seatbelts, Albuquerque. It looks like we’re headed for a legal bus wreck down at the courthouse.

The rocky relationship between the administration of Mayor Tim Keller and Chinese-owned bus manufacturer BYD (Build Your Dreams), which had struck a deal with Keller’s predecessor to provide the city with 20, 60-foot-long electric buses for the controversial Albuquerque Rapid Transit project, veered off the highway and into the ditch this month.

From the perspective of an aerial traffic cam, the two sides’ narratives are on vastly different paths as both sides threaten legal action. For its part, the city says it still does not have the full fleet BYD promised to have here in late 2017, the buses that are here don’t perform as advertised, and many are riddled with safety hazards. Meanwhile, BYD says the buses are fine and the Keller administration’s criticism is politically motivated grandstanding that hurts Albuquerque residents and poses a threat to the company’s business reputation.

Since taking office, Keller’s team has pointed out various problems with the buses. Some problems were to be expected. After all, it’s a first-of-its-kind product in the U.S. – namely a 60-foot, articulated, five-door electric bus. BYD has vacillated between being defensive and pledging to fix any issues, and the city did have inspectors on-site in California where the buses are assembled – although their work is highly suspect.

Keller upped the ante considerably this month when he announced the city would pull the plug on the BYD contract and search for clean diesel or natural gas alternative buses. He hammered the BYD buses, citing problems with the brakes, doors that open when they aren’t supposed to, handicap wheelchair locks that release when the driver turns on a cooling fan, two-way radios that go dead, and malfunctioning ramp sensors that could lead to crushed feet on the passenger platforms designed specifically for this bus.

Oh, and he said there was a possibility the battery bank inside the bus could overheat and catch fire. All this on top of operational problems the city says are led by batteries that won’t hold anywhere near the charge needed for a bus to go the promised 270 miles. That’s a bigger problem than it sounds, because it means the city doesn’t have enough buses to operate on the ART route.

Keller said in a meeting with Journal editors and reporters that BYD has missed every benchmark under the contract and added “I just don’t trust them anymore. I think they are in way over their head in America. I don’t think they have a stable leadership team, (and) we’re not going to be their test guinea pig for R&D on electric batteries.”

The city then fired off a legal shot, telling BYD in a letter that in addition to rejecting the buses it would seek damages, costs, attorney fees and other relief.

It would be an understatement to say the mayor’s pronouncement didn’t sit well with BYD president Stella Li.

“Keller’s media statements slander and maliciously harm the reputation and good name of BYD,” the company said. “These statements show the city is not acting in good faith under the contract and further indicate a potential political agenda to discredit and throttle a public works project that the mayor has long criticized as part of his campaign platform.”

It’s true some of the Keller administration’s early criticisms of BYD’s products seemed to quickly run out of gas. BYD said the charging station instructions that were reportedly all in Mandarin simply required a user to change the language. Leaking axles had just been overfilled. And mirrors that struck station canopies could be adjusted to clear them.

But the newer issues appear far more serious.

Li promised to hire independent experts to prove the buses work and are safe. The company said it is the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer with 36,000 buses in service and City Hall’s actions have damaged BYD’s reputation. Indeed, any potential government customer looking for buses would surely pause given Albuquerque’s general description of BYD’s product as something akin to a rolling death trap – to the extent it will roll at all.

BYD shows no sign of backing down or going away, so at this point Albuquerque is engaged in a high stakes game of “chicken” with 60-foot electric buses on a collision course for the courthouse. Meanwhile, the city is stuck with $69 million in construction up and down Central Avenue built specifically for a 60-foot, five-door bus. Finding an alternative is expected to take at least a year and could mean the loss of $6 million in federal funds earmarked for the electric buses.

Let’s be clear. Whether Keller ever liked this project is irrelevant. What is relevant is he has an absolute duty not to knowingly put an unsafe product on the streets or to pay for buses that don’t work as advertised. So IF his team is correct in its assessment of BYD’s product, he’s done the right thing.

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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