Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
The buses being purchased for the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project will be powered with electricity, not diesel – a move Mayor Richard Berry says will save money and reduce pollution.
The purchase, he said, would put Albuquerque in position to be the first city in the country to operate a fleet of 60-foot-long electric buses. It also would give the city’s bus rapid transit system a chance to earn a gold environmental rating; no other rapid ride transportation system in the U.S. is gold-rated.
Berry told the Journal on Tuesday that his administration is negotiating with BYD Motors Inc. to buy 18 electric buses, which would serve as the fleet for ART, his signature transportation project. The contract is written, and both parties are giving it a final read before signing, Berry said.
The electric-powered fleet is expected to cost roughly $24 million, or $7 million more than diesel buses, city officials said. But operating the buses would cost about $21 million less over the next 12 years – the life of their warranty – for a net savings of $14 million.
The details will depend on which financing options the city pursues.
“I’m a fiscal conservative,” Berry, a Republican, said Tuesday. “This is a fiscally conservative decision.”
But he also said electric vehicles are the way of the future, and the city has to replace its diesel-powered “Rapid Ride” buses anyway because of their age.
“There’s something to be said for being innovative,” Berry said.
Albuquerque Rapid Transit is the $119 million proposal to build a network of bus-only lanes and canopy-covered bus stations in the middle of Central Avenue. Each bus would carry 45 to 55 passengers, and would be charged about once a day.
The electric buses are 30 percent lighter than diesel buses and much quieter, Berry said.
BYD estimates that each bus will cause a 121-ton reduction in carbon dioxide per year. According to Environmental Protection Agency methodology, the reduction in particulate matter from one electric bus results in $55,000 in health benefits savings annually. A fleet of 18 buses would cause a savings of $11.9 million to the citizens of Albuquerque over the lifetime of the buses, BYD said in a presentation released by the city.
The project doesn’t have final approval yet from the federal government, which would provide most of the funding, but Berry remains certain that will not be a problem. It also faces a legal challenge from opponents who allege the project would violate environmental and other laws – a claim the city and Federal Transit Administration strongly dispute. A federal judge has scheduled a hearing July 27 to hear arguments over whether to grant a preliminary injunction to halt the project.
Berry said Tuesday that he expects the project to move forward unless the court orders otherwise.
“We’re at a pivotal point in our city,” he said. “I think we’re ready to stop talking ourselves out of every idea that comes along.”
Supporters say the project will mimic light rail, only at a fraction of the cost, and make the Central corridor a more pedestrian-friendly place. Opponents say the bus-only lanes will choke traffic and destroy the car-friendly charm of the old Route 66.
The project picked up another endorsement this week. In a letter to the Federal Transit Administration, the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce said it fully supports the city’s efforts to build and operate Albuquerque Rapid Transit. The group said it appreciates and understands the concerns of opponents, some of whom operate businesses along the proposed route.
But “we also believe that the ART project will be beneficial to the city and to businesses along the ART corridor in the long run,” Hispano Chamber President Alex O. Romero said in the letter.
Major business groups and large employers along Central, including the University of New Mexico and Presbyterian Health Care, are among supporters of the project. Opponents have included many smaller businesses along Central and residents on neighboring streets, among others.
Michael Riordan, the city’s chief operations officer, said the buses cost less to operate because electricity is cheaper than diesel and because they require less maintenance.
But they cost more up front.
The city’s ART plan assumed it would cost about $18 million to buy new buses. That means the city would have to find an extra $6 million to have enough for electric buses.
Riordan said the city has federal grants available that could cover the increased cost, though that would mean the city couldn’t use the grant money for other purposes.
And the exact cost of the bus purchase isn’t final because the city is weighing whether to buy or lease batteries for the buses.
In any case, the city’s Rapid Ride buses – the system that would be replaced by ART for the most part – are already at the end of their useful life, the mayor said, so the city needs to buy new buses regardless of whether ART goes forward.
Albuquerque would have a chance to be the first city with 60-foot electric buses, though smaller electric buses are in operation, he said.
“It’s a proven technology,” Berry said. “I’m very comfortable with this.”
The buses the city wants to purchase are still undergoing durability testing, city officials said. BYD would provide a 100 percent performance bond, meaning the city would not have to pay for the buses if they never pass the tests. (The buses have already passed safety tests.)
BYD calls itself the world’s largest manufacturer of battery-powered electric buses. Riordan visited the company’s plant in Lancaster, Calif., as part of his review.
The city considered proposals from other companies, too, for both diesel and electric buses.
The $14 million in savings over the next 12 years would give the city extra financial flexibility, Berry said.
“It’s going to be a great, great opportunity for Albuquerque,” Berry said.