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Report examines lessons learned from failure of ART buses

An ART bus pulls up to the Nob Hill passenger platform on Central Avenue in July 2019 during a driver training run. A new report examines the problems the city encountered with electric buses for ART. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

An ART bus pulls up to the Nob Hill passenger platform on Central Avenue in July 2019 during a driver training run. A new report examines the problems the city encountered with electric buses for ART. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque had big expectations for an electric bus fleet manufactured by BYD, but roughly two years after those buses were to have been in operation, Albuquerque Rapid Transit service has not yet launched due to a series of setbacks.

Now, a new report outlines lessons learned from Albuquerque’s failed electric buses. The advocacy organizations New Mexico Public Interest Research Group (NMPIRG) Education Fund, Environment New Mexico and the Frontier Group created the report.

Many of Albuquerque’s woes were mechanical malfunctions specific to the 60-foot electric bus, the first of its kind for BYD, also known as Build Your Dreams.

The months-long rollout of Albuquerque Rapid Transit electric buses was anything but a dream come true.

According to previous news reports, batteries overheated during driver training or failed to charge, and battery cages cracked. Brakes malfunctioned. Doors opened unexpectedly and dangerous faulty wiring was exposed. The buses averaged only 177 miles per charge, a far cry from the 275 miles per charge promised by the manufacturer.

The Indianapolis Business Journal reported in May that its city has had similar battery problems with BYD’s 60-foot bus.

But even if the buses had worked properly, the ART route still poses challenges.

The Central Avenue route has a 1,000-foot change in elevation, which for an electric bus can reduce battery life per charge.

“This is a demanding route because of elevation and temperature,” Environment New Mexico Director John Ammondson said. “We found that Albuquerque should incorporate on-route charging stations like some other cities do, as opposed to charging overnight in a depot.”

The city returned the 60-foot electric buses and canceled its contract after suing the manufacturer. That suit was settled in May, terminating both parties’ obligations. Albuquerque was not required to pay the $22 million for the buses, and BYD could not countersue for breach of contract.

Mayor Tim Keller announced in August that the city would receive a $2.7 million federal grant to purchase five new 40-foot electric city buses from a different company. Those buses are expected to be operational by August 2020, but will not travel the ART route.

“Like with any new technology, there are growing pains,” Ammondson said. “The city could have thrown in the towel and said electric buses won’t work in Albuquerque, but it’s clear that they still can. This shows the city understands electric buses are the future. The rest of New Mexico should jump on this as quickly as possible.”

The report studies successes and setbacks of electric bus programs in Seneca, South Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; King County, Washington; Twin Rivers, California; and Massachusetts.

Most cities and school districts paid more up front for electric buses than traditional diesel buses. The report states that an average electric transit bus costs $750,000, compared with $500,000 for a diesel transit bus. An electric school bus costs $230,000, and a diesel school bus has a price tag of $110,000.

But many cities and school districts ultimately saved money by switching to electric buses because of reduced maintenance and the stability of electricity costs compared to fossil fuel.

Electric transit can also reduce harmful emissions. Diesel powers half of America’s 70,000 public transit buses and 95% of the nation’s school buses, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Diesel exhaust chemicals fuel the creation of ozone. That pollutant is increasingly common in Albuquerque and the rest of New Mexico.

The report recommends cities implement a pilot program of electric buses to test for problems, then take advantage of federal funding and commit to a specific timeline for replacing old vehicles with electric transit.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.

 

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