Albuquerque’s Groundbreaking Bus Project Stalled

albuquerque-art-brt

Albuquerque’s promising start with electric buses has run out of gas — and it’s a cautionary tale for all cities in the global warming era.

Last week, Mayor Tim Keller announced he was returning 15 electric buses to the Chinese manufacturer BYD — buses that had been ordered for the new bus rapid transit system but ended up being insufficient because of their limited range.

Battery life, Keller told the Albuquerque Journal, doesn’t seem to be something “we can overcome.”

The decision means the project — which completed its two-year construction — will be delayed as much as 18 months as the city finds a company to sell it diesel or gas buses.

And everything seemed so promising.

Albuquerque’s BRT line — Albuquerque Rapid Transit, or “ART” — received the highest ranking for design of any U.S. bus rapid transit system from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy when it celebrated its “grand opening” a year ago. The event was timed to coincide with the end of former Mayor  Richard Berry’s term. He had been the $119-million project’s biggest champion.

Even one major hurdle — a long delay in receiving promised funding from the Federal Transit Administration — was overcome.

But nobody foresaw how the magnitude of the challenge of fulfilling the order for the electric buses, which had issues with malfunctioning brakes, doors and framing, according to local press accounts earlier this month. But the biggest problem seems to be the battery range. The batteries were only running about 175 miles between charging as opposed to the 275 miles the city had been promised, according to Inside EVs. They were also prone to overheating.

No other companies, Keller said, would bid on the project because of its requirement that the buses be electric. So, for now, Albuquerque will go back to fuel-burning vehicles, a blow to the environment.

Some knowledgable observers say electric buses just aren’t ready for prime time yet.

Michael Kodransky of ITDP says Albuquerque deserves credit for trying to pioneer this new green technology.

“What they did was the right thing given the information that they had,” he said. “I don’t think them trying something bold and it not working is a failure. It’s still in such a nascent phase, there’s no doubt were going to move toward bus electrification. Albuquerque unfortunately because it was the first it went through these very hard growing pains.

  • Noah Muller

    Interested to see what happens in Indianapolis as they have contracted for the same busses and are in testing now. Expected to open BRT less than a year from now.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Shouldn’t they have ordered one of the buses and driven it around a bit before committing to an entire fleet of them?

  • Courtney

    I wouldn’t call it a failure. A bigger failure is our country’s commitment to continuing to build highways and freeways.

  • Del Duncan

    You should get some local input on this besides the PR spin this article puts on the project. It was hated and had almost no citizen support and is a bad design all th way around. And I’m generally for these kinds of projects but this was the wrong one, wrong type, wrong place, for the wrong reasons.

  • crazyvag

    What was bad about the design? The corridor selection looks right and the station spacing seems ok here. Clearly battery buses are not ready for prime time, but aside from that?

  • carl jacobs

    If no one foresaw the “magnitude of the challenge of fulfilling the order for the electric buses” then perhaps they weren’t paying attention. Other companies no-bid the project because they considered the technical requirements unachievable. That should have been their first clue. But of course they did know because they did notice.

    To me this sounds like the city wanted $50 million worth of buses for a price tag of $25 million. When the project is technically risky (and this was technically risky, confer with all those no-bids) the company will protect itself by negotiating the requirements with the customer after contract award. The specification to which the company will be legally held is the specification agreed to during development. If the customer only has $25 million he is going to get requirements for a $25 million bus. Sometimes he forgets what he agreed to buy.

    So when you read that the bus is only getting 175 miles of range instead of the required 275 your first question should not be “Why is it underperforming?” Your first question should be “Under what conditions?” Because I guarantee the requirement was written with conditions that specify when the bus will get 275 mile of range.

    It is not likely this bus doesn’t meet its contractual specification. I suspect it is much less legally exposed than the article might suggest. And since the company is saying it will get an independent tester to verify the bus, I would be wary to take this to court if I was Albuquerque. It’s not gping to be nearly as clean as politicians might like.

  • George Joseph Lane

    Sure, if you want to increase lead time by two years. It’s almost universal practice to spec trains or buses and order a whole fleet rather than testing them as there is very little international standardization.

    The problem here is that the city tried to run before it could walk. Presumably there were already buses operating on this route. They could have been retained for service on the new route until electrics were viable.

  • Ming

    I’m pretty sure the new mayor is trying to cancel the whole BRT project. Somehow, the old mayor was able to use a few buses to run a limited service when the BRT project opened. But the new mayor is somehow not able to run any service since taking power even though BYD has let him use the buses for free while BYD goes about getting proper durability certifications for the buses. The guy is so toxic that none of the other electric bus vendors want to go near this project with a ten foot pole. And now the mayor has to delay for another 18 months because he somehow can’t find any buses to run the route with. I know the US isn’t the most transit friendly country in the world, but I don’t think it’s that hard to find some buses with doors on both sides to run some token service with.

  • Richard Bullington

    You are “generally for these kinds of projects”, but not where YOU live — and presumably drive to work.

    Aren’t you a pro-transit paragon!!!

  • It actually might be. We have a pretty similar system in San Bernardino and the buses used here apparently cost $1.1mn each, though I don’t know how that compares to regular XN60s. Still, that would be a big pill to swallow.

  • Yea, BYD busses aren’t exactly getting the best reviews by operators compared to other options like Proterra. However, to my knowledge, the latter doesn’t (yet) make a bus that will fit the ART requirements. Still, they could use the XE60s from New Flyer as that would almost certainly meet the requirements.

  • This doesn’t make sense, did they not see what the buses, that are already out there were doing right now?! Or it was this particular Chinese bus company, gave the wrong information? And why wasn’t one bus tested out before purchasing all of them?

  • adam_sf

    No, because most buses don’t have doors on the left side.

  • crazyvag

    The impact of heat on battery life was probably under-estimated. They could probably address this by ordering 5 more buses to allow for more to be charging which might cost an extra $5 million and that would be cheaper than delaying the project by 2 years.

  • David

    This was an ideal candidate for a BRT line. Albuquerque is a mid-size city, its transit ridership is strongest in the Central Avenue corridor, it was already running robust limited-stop service along the alignment, and the roadway was wide enough to accommodate dedicated bus lanes without impacting traffic throughput.

    The only unfortunate thing is that the city bought the lies that BYD sold. It’s been known since the first BYD buses ran at LA Metro that these were incredibly poorly made buses, and the fact that the LA Times exposé on this company didn’t double as BYD’s tombstone is a testament to the desperation of politicians who want to appear “green” to their constituencies without regard for money or facts.

  • David

    While range was certainly an issue, the fact is that there was a variety of serious fit and finish problems plaguing these buses from the get-go. BYD has a very poor track record of making good buses, so I’m sure ABQ won’t have too much trouble washing its hands of these terrible buses.

  • David

    Finding buses with left-side doors is easier said than done. But coincidentally, AC Transit has received delivery of left-side door buses for its yet-to-open BRT line. I’m sure ABQ Ride could borrow AC Transit’s buses until Oakland’s BRT line opens, but that would require the mayor of Albuquerque to actually want to run ART service. I think he would be happy with no buses ever rolling on his city’s streets ever again, so I presume he’ll drag out this fiasco until after he runs for re-election.

  • David

    BYD will sell you whatever “dream” you want. Just look at the glossy brochures at your next transit convention! Oh, you want an actual bus…? They’ll get back to you on that.

  • Ming

    I think the city actually had their own quality inspector stationed in California to regularly inspect the buses as they were manufactured and to do quality control, but I think I read somewhere that the guy didn’t do any work and signed off on the buses without checking anything.

  • Carleton MacDonald

    Electric trolley buses, such as those in San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver BC, Dayton, Philadelphia and Boston, have operated successfully for decades, and there is a proven North American supplier, New Flyer. They operate using trolleys on overhead wires, not finicky battery packs.

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