Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Five years and $133 million later, Albuquerque finally got to take the ride.
The long-delayed and pricey Albuquerque Rapid Transit – a bus system that runs on the Central Avenue corridor from Unser to Tramway, and north to Uptown – inaugurated service Saturday and had riders lining up to see what they had been waiting for.
To celebrate the occasion, Mayor Tim Keller, along with transit employees and city officials, hopped aboard the 60-foot turquoise buses Saturday afternoon. The mayor took the opportunity to talk with riders, promote “Small Business Saturday” shopping along the way and encourage others to give ART a chance.
“Today marks a new chapter in the journey, in many ways, of our city, of Route 66, and as our community and, hopefully, a journey that is filled with a little bit of prosperity, a little bit of hope and a little bit of optimism,” Keller said during a news conference in Nob Hill. “So far, that is playing out.”
Keller also boasted that the ART buses were packed on the first day, with some people being turned away to wait for the next bus.
“So this is a new problem for our city that we are glad to have,” he said.
Keller started the afternoon with a crab tostada at Sharky’s restaurant near Old Coors before riding the bus to shop at El Vado and finish up with the news conference at Color Wheel Toys in Nob Hill.
During the ride, the mayor moved up and down the bus to chat with other riders, the bus driver and even reached up to put a fallen placard back up on the wall. At times, the ride slowed to a crawl as the buses bunched up at stops and, at one point, the driver slammed on the brakes, evoking some gasps and comments from those on board.
City transit director Danny Holcomb said the driver was “freaked out” due to Keller and dozens of others jumping on the bus out of nowhere.
Holcomb, who started with the department as a van driver in 1995, said the city’s apprehension reminds him of the startup to Rapid Ride. But he is optimistic it will pan out the same way for ART – a system that runs much of the way in bus-only lanes in the middle of Central and is scheduled to serve its stations every 10 minutes during most periods.
“I’m excited,” Holcomb said. “I haven’t heard a single complaint.”
Matt Andrew and his girlfriend said they are from out of town and took ART to Old Town to avoid a fight for parking.
It’s pretty slow and rough going at first. They’re still trying to figure it out,” Andrew said. He said the couple waited for about 10 minutes to depart the Unser stop as the driver was apparently being trained.
“It’s going pretty fast now that he’s on,” Andrew said with a laugh, referring to Mayor Keller as he was talking with fellow riders in the back of the bus.
Transit Advisory Board member and longtime city resident Steve Pilon and his wife, Theresa Dunn, rode their bikes to Nob Hill and got on the bus to see what it was all about.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Pilon said. “I think the execution was very poor.”
He said the money would’ve been better spent improving the entire bus network rather than focusing it on a central line. “That’s my take,” he said. A significant portion of the cost of ART is being offset by grants from the federal government.
Business owners had mixed feelings as the buses rolled past.
Kiko Torres, owner of Masks y Mas in Nob Hill, said ART construction was hard on his business and that he ended up having to take a second job.
“Having it up and running is definitely a good thing,” Torres said. “People didn’t want to come to this part of town because there wasn’t anywhere to park.”
He said the neighborhood took a loss of numerous retail and small businesses, but he is trying to stay positive.
“It’s been such a difficult road, but it’s finally happening,” Torres said.
Winding, bumpy road
The $133 million ART project took a long, winding and bumpy road to this point.
Former Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican, made the new public transportation option a priority for his administration, and design for the Central-based route began more than five years ago.
While ART had support from some major employers and business organizations, others in the community vehemently opposed it. Critics in 2016 filed two lawsuits trying to stop it.
The project survived both legal challenges and construction began later that year.
But the drama was far from over for ART, which was supposed to have started service two years ago.
On Nov. 25, 2017, Berry and other officials took a ceremonial first ride on one of the new 60-foot electric buses purchased for the route.
However, Keller took office Dec. 1, 2017, and quickly raised concerns about the project. He held a news conference in January 2018 calling the project “a bit of a lemon.” He highlighted design flaws along the route, as well as problems with the electric buses made by BYD Motors.
The city last November rejected 15 electric buses delivered by BYD, citing battery life issues and other flaws. It subsequently sued BYD, alleging breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation and more. The city ultimately settled the suit for no damages, though the agreement terminated the city’s obligation to buy $22 million worth of buses from BYD and prevented the company from countersuing.
Keller’s administration ordered diesel buses from another manufacturer to get the project started, and all 20 have now arrived.
The mayor earlier this month announced the Nov. 30 start date, calling it “one of the first positive announcements we’ve gotten about this project.”
Journal staff writer Jessica Dyer contributed to this report.