Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The future of the beleaguered Albuquerque Rapid Transit project brightened a little bit this week.
City leaders on Wednesday unveiled the first delivered bus from a 20-vehicle order the city placed last year with New Flyer of America – a 60-foot articulated diesel bus with a flashy turquoise paint job Mayor Tim Keller likened to the New Mexico sky.
ABQ Ride will begin test-driving the bus next week, the latest step toward resuscitating the long-stalled, $135 million ART project.
“It is great to see this new bus right here in our city, and so far we love it,” Keller told a news conference at the city’s West Side bus depot. “We’re still doing all the testing and so forth, (and) we’ll work out whatever we find, but so far the team is very pleased with it.”
The rest of the fleet is expected to arrive later this year. Keller said he anticipates starting service this winter, but cautioned that providing a more specific start date “would be premature.”
The city had planned to launch ART service in late 2017, but bus problems have shattered the timeline. The city originally ordered electric vehicles from Chinese manufacturer BYD Motors. But Keller’s administration last fall sent back the 15 buses BYD delivered, saying they had various safety and battery endurance problems.
The city ultimately sued BYD, while the company accused Keller of making “false and misleading statements” about its vehicles in what became a testy public feud.
The parties settled the case last month, agreeing to part ways and terminate their original contract without any money exchanging hands.
Keller praised city officials and New Flyer – the company that built the city’s current Rapid Ride fleet – for working out a contingency plan last fall that prevented even further delays. The city has ordered 20 buses from New Flyer; 18 are destined for ART, and two are bound for Rapid Ride but are designed for possible use on ART if needed. They all will have doors on the right and left sides.
Lawrence Rael, the city’s chief operating officer, said the city has hired an outside expert to monitor the bus production inside New Flyer’s Minnesota plant. The city will alert the company if it identifies any problems while testing the first bus so fixes can be made on the remaining 19, Rael said.
The buses were $856,163 apiece and will cost the city about $7.5 million less in total than BYD’s electric fleet. The city is asking the Federal Transportation Administration – which funded ART with a $75 million grant – if it can keep that savings for further investments on the route.
“They are as interested as we are in getting the ART project up and going,” Rael said of the FTA. “We think we made a strong case (in saying), ‘Let us invest (the savings) in making this better.’ ”
He said the city would use the money to install canopies on ART stops that are not currently covered and to provide additional driver training and public education. He expects a decision by the end of the summer.
Officials showed off various features on the new 42-seat bus Wednesday, including an inside rack for six bicycles and adjustable-height flooring near the doors that drivers can raise when picking up passengers from the ART platforms or lower when people enter from a normal curb.
Keller said the interior is “all about utilitarianism,” contrasting New Flyer’s hard-surface seating to the fabric-covered seats in the BYD models.
“We hope these buses will look nice and fresh for years and years. That was a real concern with the old design, actually – they just were not resistant to all the things that happen on our buses,” the mayor said.
The city will ultimately wrap the turquoise-painted vehicles with different designs that incorporate the Sandia Mountains, hot air balloons, roadrunners and cactuses.
Bernie Toon, the city’s transit director, said test-driving would begin Monday along the ART route, which features miles of bus-only lanes in the middle of Central Avenue. Given that the infrastructure has sat idle for a year – and some drivers, pedestrians and even skateboarders have grown used to crossing the lanes without fear of bus traffic – Toon said Albuquerque police would be closely monitoring the route and bus drivers would be on high alert.
“We’ve got to be very, very careful the first several weeks watching for people,” he said.