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Keller: ART Still a Mess, But There is Hope

The $135 million Albuquerque Rapid Transit remains a mess, but there is a chance that it could start offering limited service in the fall, Mayor Tim Keller said Wednesday.

Federal funding for the project has yet to be approved, and there is no guarantee that it will ever come through, Keller said during an in-depth briefing on ART foe members of the news media. The 60-foot-long articulated electric buses still have numerous problems, have yet to be certified for being durable enough, and the city has decided to go to bid to have other companies build ART buses, Keller said.

“We have our shoulder to the wheel ans [ART] will someday be up and running,” Keller said.

Keller broke down ART's problems and challenges into four areas: Construction, funding, buses and an implementation plan. Here's how those four areas look right now:

- Construction. Major construction along ART's nine-mile route on Central Avenue is finished. But lane striping, installing surveillance cameras on the ART platforms and the installation of better signage for motorists and pedestrians and the synchronization of traffic signals along the route continues.

- Funding. The Federal Transit Administration has yet to approve the $75 million grant for ART that former Mayor Richard Berry's administration repeatedly said was a done deal. The good news, Keller said, is that Congress has appropriated money for ART and that the decision on whether to fund the project – which with the exception of the buses has already been built and paid for by the city – now rests with FTA officials in Washington, D.C., and the political whims of the nation's capital.

“It is truly up to the FTA, they can always say no,” Keller said. “This truly is a choice by the FTA.”

Here's what that means. If the FTA decides against funding the project, the city is out that money because it has already paid for its construction with its own money. That money came from capital projects that are funded by general obligation bonds and include things like street repairs and libraries and parks and stop signs and traffic lights. If the city doesn't get the $75 million from the FTA, it will have to divert money from future capital projects for streets and parks to fund the capital projects that were raided to pay for ART.

- The buses. The 60-foot, articulated electric buses built by the Chinese company, BYD, continue to be a sort of mechanical and engineering disaster. The city specified in its contract with BYD for 18 ART buses that they needed to get 275 miles per charge. The buses are only getting 180 miles per charge, said Lawrence Rael, the city's Chief Operating Officer. That means the city would have to order more buses or have a lot more charging stations so the buses can juice up along their routes.

So, BYD has agreed to build three more charging stations, one each at Uptown, Central and Tramway and Central and Unser.

“This is not an ideal situation,” Rael said.

There are more problems with BYD's buses; they won't be certified for use until at least early 2019. That's both good and bad. It's good because the city isn't contractually obligated to pay for the buses until they are certified by an independent reviewer. It's bad because the city can't get any federal grant money for the buses until they are certified.

But Keller said the city is looking to “divorce” itself from BYD and is in the process of renegotiating its contract with the firm. That could mean that the city keeps only some of the 15 buses that BYD has delivered to the city so far.

- Implementation. Keller said the city explored three options about what to do about ART: Junk it, stick forever with BYD, or divorce BYD and try to take possession of some of its buses.

Junking ART and putting Central back to what it was before construction began would cost $200 million, Keller said.

Sticking with BYD until its buses are certified would mean that the system would not be operational until the winter of 2019, Keller said.

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