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Keller: ART a "lemon" that could take a year to fix

Keller details a project that can only be called a disaster

Charging systems for electric buses can't be certified

Some ART stations will have to be redesigned

No idea when the project will become operational

The $135 million Albuquerque Rapid Transit project is so riddled with design flaws and mechanical issues with its electric buses that it will take a year to fix, and city officials don't know when the project will become operational, Mayor Tim Keller said Tuesday.

Those flaws include at least two ART stations that will have to be at least partially redesigned, electric buses that haven't been certified to meet federal standards, proprietary charging systems for the buses that haven't been certified, and the nagging uncertainty about whether the city will ever get the $75 million in federal funding it hoped for, Keller said during a briefing Tuesday afternoon on the ART project.

“There are a whole lot of questions and we don't have answers to all the questions,” Keller said. “This is going to be an endeavor the city is going to have to deal with and fix for at least the next year.

“What we have found is very troubling. The problems are much worse than I think anybody believed. This project is a bit of a lemon. We don't have a predictable timeline as to when ART will be operational.”

Here are some of the issues that Keller and the city's Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael revealed during a 45-minute briefing on ART.

- The mirrors on the ART buses are bumping into the pillars that hold up the fabric awnings at the ART stations along Central Avenue. It means that those stations will have to be altered so the mirrors are protected.

- The ART station at Central and Washington is too short. It means that in order to get the 60-foot-long articulated buses into the station, bus drivers must make an “S” maneuver, which swerves the buses into regular traffic lanes and presents safety issues to motorists.

- The station at Atrisco and Central is too long. That means the ART bus sort of comes into the station tilted at a three-to-four degree angle and that the bus floor is a few inches higher than the station platform. That's not safe for passengers.

- There are gaps of at least three inches at some stations between the platform edge and the bus floor, which makes it unsafe for people with disabilities.

- The buses themselves. Former Mayor Richard Berry's administration ordered 18 buses from a Chinese company, BYD, or Build Your Dreams. All of the buses were supposed to have been delivered by early October, but so far, only nine have been delivered. And ART can't operate without a full compliment of buses.

There at least 20 to 30 minor and major problems with each bus that city workers have found. They range from structural problems to minor, but important things like the color of the seat belts for drivers. Federal regulations require that the seat belts be yellow, but the BYD buses have black seat belts, which makes them harder for drivers to see.

Federal regulations also require that belt restraints for wheel chairs be in the same place in each bus. But in the BYD buses, those restraints are in different areas in each bus.

- The charging system for the buses might be flawed and has not been certified to meet federal standards. At least one bus was disabled when city workers tried to charge it using BYD's charging system, Rael said. The calibrations between the chargers and the batteries might be off as well. And, the touch screens for the charging systems sometimes display information in Chinese.

Because the charging system is a proprietary product of BYD, it has to be certified by an independent third party to meet U.S. standards. But a third-party tester told city officials that it can't yet certify BYD's chargers. And that independent tester told the city to only use BYD's chargers on the buses for fear that other charging systems might ruin the buses.

Because the chargers aren't certified, the city really can't use the ART buses.

“The ART buses are still sitting in the parking lot waiting for BYD to come in and get the charging systems up and running,” Rael said.

- Problems with the range of the electric buses. In its contract with BYD, the city had specified that the buses needed to get 260 to 275 miles per charge. But so far, the buses are getting only 200 miles per charge, Rael said.

That limited range throws off ART's scheduling system because it means buses would have to be taken out of service earlier than anticipated to be recharged. That means the city would have to have more buses, Rale added.

- Not all of the buses have been built yet, and the city doesn't know when they will be built. “We now have bus number nine. Ten and 11 are in the process [of being built] Thirteen and fourteen are being built, and bus twenty is still in the box; it isn't even on the [production] line,” Rael said.

- The buses haven't been certified. BYD must have its buses certified by a firm in Altoona, Penn., that they meet federal standards. But the tester in Altoona has told the city that the bus BYD brought there can't be certified.

Keller also said that he's not sure if the city will ever get the $75 million in federal funding it had hoped for.

"I believe that everything was done with the best of intentions," Keller said about the previous administration's thinking it would get the FTA grant. "But the hallmark of [Washington] D.C. is uncertainty."

So far, the city has spent $135 million on ART even though it only had $57 million on hand from previous federal grants and city money to pay for it. The difference was made up by the Berry administration by funneling savings from unfilled positions at City Hall into the ART project, Keller said.

If there is any good news about the situation that Keller and Rael described, it's that the city hasn't yet paid for any of the buses it has gotten from BYD. And it won't pay for any of the buses until they are all delivered and certified, Keller said.

Keller also said that he has no idea of how much it will cost the city to redesign the two ART stations. He added that the city hasn't even inspected all of the ART stations. So there's a chance that more will have to be redesigned and rebuilt.

So who will pay for that?

Keller said the city's contracts with ART's designers and builders would probably require them to pick up the redesign and rebuilding costs.

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