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After sputtering for two years, ART is ready to roll

Albuquerque Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael gives details about the ART bus service schedule to start Nov. 30. Joining Rael are Mayor Tim Keller, left and new Transit Director Danny Holcomb. (Adolphe Piere-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ART is ready to start.

Again.

After years of delays – including a legal fight over the first batch of buses – the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project will begin operations on Saturday, Nov. 30, something Mayor Tim Keller deemed “one of the first positive announcements we’ve gotten about this project.”

The new public transportation option will ferry riders along Central Avenue between Unser and Tramway, traveling much of the way in bus-only lanes in the middle of the road. Passengers at most stops will board from platforms located in the Central median, though there are curbside pickups on certain stretches.

Buses will run at least every 10 minutes. Rides will be free through Jan. 1, and $1 per adult thereafter.

It will replace the existing Rapid Ride “Red” and “Green” lines.

The new Albuquerque Rapid Transit buses are painted turquoise and wrapped with artwork meant to highlight the city. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Keller and other city leaders on Friday celebrated the impending – and long-awaited – debut while standing next to four turquoise ART buses parked Downtown. They acknowledged the rocky path the city has traveled to reach this point, with Keller saying ART had been “a bit of a lemon” and City Councilor Ken Sanchez calling ART “a nasty word for a long time.”

“I was there at the BioPark two years ago when there was a lot of hope and promise for the ART project, and no buses ran after that,” Sanchez said, referring to ART’s ceremonial first ride in November 2017. “But today that hope and promise is a reality.”

The $133 million project has created frustration in the community; some never wanted it in the first place, while others have deemed it a boondoggle due to repeated hiccups.

Keller said his administration at one point considered scrapping the entire project but that killing it did not make financial sense. The city used $106 million in federal funding for the project, including $75 million from the Federal Transit Administration and other funds from the Federal Highway Administration.

“I think we’ve got something that eventually our city is going to be very proud of,” he said.

Years in the making, buses were supposed to start rolling in late 2017. Then-Mayor Richard Berry took a ceremonial trip on one of the electric ART buses shortly before his term expired in November of that year, but the project stalled shortly thereafter.

Not long after taking office in December 2017, Keller said there were too many problems with the project to fully launch the service, primarily related to the 60-foot electric buses manufactured by BYD Motors.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, left, and Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael on Friday announced that the long-delayed Albuquerque Rapid Transit project, with brightly colored turquoise buses, would begin service on Nov. 30. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Last year, the city rejected 15 buses made by the Chinese company alleging numerous safety and mechanical flaws and filed a breach of contract lawsuit. The city and BYD settled earlier this year, each agreeing to walk away from the contract with no money exchanging hands.

Albuquerque ultimately ordered 20 new 60-foot, articulated diesel buses from New Flyer of America, the same company that built the city’s existing Rapid Ride fleet.

All 20 have now arrived, and Keller said he is confident in the new vehicles.

The mayor on Friday described the toll the project had taken on the community, saying the construction “created a damaged spine” in the city and hurt many businesses along the route. The city elected to launch ART service on the Saturday after Thanksgiving – a day branded “Small Business Saturday” in an attempt to promote shopping locally.

“We’re doing this as a fresh start in our community,” Keller said. “A way to turn the page to what in many ways is still going to be a long road ahead, but it’s a road we’re actually going to be able to drive our buses on.”

The city Transit Department, ABQ Ride, has already trained its drivers on the route, and will continue test runs this month.

Police have for the last few months stopped drivers for traffic violations along the route – such as illegally crossing the ART double-white lines or making left turns or U-turns outside of designated points – but up to now only provided motorists with informational material. The city has recorded about 270 of those stops so far, but Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael said police presence and enforcement will increase.

Police will start issuing official warnings when ART launches on Nov. 30 and begin writing citations in January, he said.

The city will run a public information campaign that will include advertising and message boards, though Keller cautioned that it will take time for the city to adapt.

“It took (Cleveland, Ohio) 10 years for basically drivers to finally understand it,” he said of a bus-rapid project there.

And the mayor signaled that the ART system that starts later this month could keep evolving. He said the city will reassess the service next summer, examining left-hand turn options, operating hours and other elements.

“We’ll probably have to do that about every six months for several years, but eventually I think we’ll get used to this project and it will be a benefit for the city,” he said.

A whistleblower lawsuit filed just last week by a former city traffic engineer alleged that he was fired for raising concerns about city road projects, including ART. The suit says he alerted superiors to issues with the ART traffic signals, U-turn configurations and more.

Keller – who took office after the engineer’s termination – said he could not comment on the litigation but that the city has made some changes along the route.

“We believe the issues we know about have been remedied,” he said.

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