On November 8, 2019, Mayor Tim Keller announced that after over 2 years of delay, including a lawsuit over the first 21 buses, the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project will begin operations on Saturday, Nov. 30. Keller deemed it “one of the first positive announcements we’ve gotten about this project.” It was in mid-November, 2017, that former Republican Mayor “Boondoggle Berry” dedicated ART project with a photo op, yet only one bus had been delivered at that time just for Berry’s “photo op” victory lap.
The new ART Buses will run on a nine mile stretch of Central Avenue between Unser Blvd on the West Side to Louisiana and Central traveling on dedicated lanes in the middle of central where bus stop platforms have been constructed. No left turns are allowed on the 9-mile route. The ART bus route will replace the existing Rapid Ride “Red” and “Green” lines and will run supposedly every 10 minutes. Keller announce rides will be free through Jan. 1, and $1 per adult thereafter.
NMPIRG REPORT RELEASED
On November 3, 2019, a report was released New Mexico Public Interest Research Group (NMPIRG) Education Fund, Environment New Mexico and the Frontier Group outlining the lessons learned from the Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) bus project. You can review the report at this link:
According to the NMPIRG report, many of the projects problems were mechanical malfunctions specific to the 60-foot electric bus manufactured by Build Your Dreams (BYD) by special order from the city. According to numerous news reports, the reported problems found by the City with the BYD buses delivered were:
1.The center and rear brakes had zero air pressure, yet the 60-foot-long articulated buses were able to move, meaning that the center and rear axle brakes were not working and the buses were relying on their front brakes alone.
2.Rear doors would open during bus operation without any action by the driver.
3.The buses had air conditioning outages
4.Bolts flying off doors.
5.The electric buses delivered were supposed to operate for 275 miles, but city officials found the buses could not go more than 177 miles before they needed recharging.
6.The lack of undercarriage protection.
7. Buses that wouldn’t stop when emergency doors were utilized.
8. Cracking on bus exteriors.
9. Mirrors not set up correctly.
10. Wiring problems and electrical system problems.
11. The handicap electric chair lock becoming unsecured when the driver turns on the air conditioner.
12. The bus batteries heat up so much that they can’t take a charge.
13. The batteries or not properly stored or cooled on the buses posing a fire hazard.
14.Wheelchair ramps that deploy when weight is on them
14. Doors that open while the bus is in motion.
15. Exposed high-voltage wires.
17. Failure to construct extra charging stations promised.
The 15 buses that were manufactured and delivered by BYD were picked up by BYD after the city made a demand of the company to take back the buses due to the significant number of safety and battery-life issues. One of the BYD buses returned actually broke down on the road back to California.
December 7, 2018 Mayor Keller held a press conference announcing cancellation of its contract with BYD. Keller announced Albuquerque was taking legal action against the California based company for breach of contract and “unfair trade practices” which would have allowed the city to recover “treble damages” and attorneys fee if the city prevailed.
The cost to the city for the electric buses was to have been nearly $22 million for 20 buses, but only 15 buses were ever delivered and then returned. The city paid nothing for the buses. The city demanded BYD to pick up and accept the return of the 60-foot electric buses. The lawsuit was settled in May, 2019 with both parties agreeing to a “dismissal with prejudice” terminating both parties’ obligations. Albuquerque was not required to pay anything for the buses, and BYD agreed not countersue for breach of contract.
According to the NMPIRG report, the 9-mile ART route itself posed significate challenges for electric buses. The Central Avenue route has a 1,000-foot change in elevation, which for an electric bus can reduce battery life per charge. Notwithstanding the problems with the BYD buses and the bus route itself, Mayor Tim Keller announced in August that the city would receive a $2.7 million federal grant to purchase five new 40-foot electric city buses from a different company.
According to Environment New Mexico Director John Ammondson:
“This is a demanding route because of elevation and temperature … We found that Albuquerque should incorporate on-route charging stations like some other cities do, as opposed to charging overnight in a depot. … Like with any new technology, there are growing pains. … The city could have thrown in the towel and said electric buses won’t work in Albuquerque, but it’s clear that they still can. This shows the city understands electric buses are the future. The rest of New Mexico should jump on this as quickly as possible.”
The NMPIRG report studied successes and setbacks of electric bus programs in Seneca, South Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; King County, Washington; Twin Rivers, California; and Massachusetts. What was found is that cities and school districts paid more up front for electric buses than traditional diesel buses. The report found that the average electric transit bus costs $750,000, compared with $500,000 for a diesel transit bus. An electric school bus costs $230,000, and a diesel school bus has a price tag of $110,000.
According to the NMPIRG report, the cities and school districts saved money by switching to electric buses because of reduced maintenance and the stability of electricity costs compared to fossil fuel. Electric busses have the benefit of reducing harmful emissions damaging the environment. According to the American Public Transportation Association, diesel powers half of America’s 70,000 public transit buses and 95% of the nation’s school buses. Diesel exhaust chemicals fuel the depletion of the ozone.
The report recommends cities implement a pilot program of electric buses to test for problems, then take advantage of federal funding and commit to a specific timeline for replacing old vehicles with electric transit.
WHISTLEBLOWER LAWSUIT FILED
On November 1, it was widely reported by the media that former Albuquerque Traffic Engineer John Kolessar filed a “whistleblower” lawsuit claiming he was fired for raising concerns about the Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) project. The lawsuit, filed in the Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque names the city of Albuquerque and two of Kolessar’s then-supervisors inside the Department of Municipal Development.
Kolessar alleges in his lawsuit the city failed to follow traffic safety rules and ordinances. Kolessar also alleges that he was labeled a “problem employee” when he “pushed back” against city decisions that violated national standards for traffic signs and lighting. According to the lawsuit, the former Traffic Engineer was fired in November 2017 “for using his work vehicle for personal errands and other minor personnel infractions” alleging the firing was retaliation for his “complaints about the City’s disregard for traffic safety and other matters of public concern.”
City spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn issued a very short statement regarding the whistleblower lawsuit saying:
“This is active litigation, but it is the City’s position that Mr. Kolessar was terminated with cause.”
According to the civil lawsuit filed, Kolessar worked with the city for 9 years and repeatedly complained to superiors about the city’s failure to follow safety rules and ordinances when it came to the Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) project. The allegations included violating the safety rules and ordinance outlined in the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The lawsuite alleges in part:
“On numerous occasions, including in the context of ART, Mr. Kolessar’s supervisors directed him to disregard MUTCD safety requirements, especially related to the placement and use of traffic signals and signs, … The City often bypassed the MUTCD for political and budgetary reasons.”
According to the lawsuit Kolessar “submitted an extensive list of concerns” about ART, contending that it included unwarranted traffic signals, had “dangerous and inconvenient U-turn configurations,” and the “elimination of safe parking and created traffic conditions that would harm local businesses.”
Among the concerns alleged in Kolessar’s lawsuit include unprotected crosswalks, signals going up at intersections without engineering studies and disregarding a recommendation to replace 16 Downtown signals with four-way stop signs. The civil lawsuit alleges that in response to one Kolessar’s email outlining his concerns in the department, a supervisor wrote:
“You have a habit of citing reduction in accidents, personal injury, property damage liability or increases in traffic flow to support your self-serving generalizations.”
The Kolessar lawsuit alleges he faced retaliation, including a work schedule change. According to the suit, an outside investigator hired by the city put a GPS tracker on Kolessar’s official vehicle, found “a small number of minor detours” during work hours “but no serious misconduct.”
Kolessar is seeking double back pay and associated benefits, reinstatement, attorney’s fees, interest and undisclosed punitive damages.
SILVER LINING TO WHISTLEBLOWER LAWSUIT
Former Mayor Richard Berry, former Chief Operations Officer Michael Riordan and former Transit Director Bruce Rizzeri have never been held accountable for their actions with the disastrous ART Bus Project even after the June 6, 2018, Albuquerque Inspector General (IG) report was released. Given the nature of the allegations contained in the whistle blower complaint, the depositions of Berry, Reardon and Rizzieri would be in order to find out what, if anything, their involvement was with the termination of the whistle blower. Just maybe, just maybe, all 3 will eventually be held accountable for the $135 million boondoggle and the cramming the Bus Art project down the throats of taxpayers without a public vote.
INSPECTOR GENERAL REPORT
On June 6, 2018, a 73-page Office of Inspector General (IG) report on the ART Bus project was released to the public. The entire Inspector General report on the ART Bus project can be read here:
The report found that former Mayor Berry’s Chief Operations Officer Michael Riordan allegedly “threatened” to terminate the city’s $22.9 million contract with the manufacturer of the special-order ART buses. Michael Riordan was said to have demanded a new bus be delivered in time for Berry to ride and have a photo op before he left office so he could say ART was up and running.
According to the Inspector General report, then Chief Operations Officer Michael Riordan “was adamant about having a bus transported to the City before the end of the Mayor Berry administration.” An Albuquerque transit employee told the Inspector General that “core processes on manufacturing buses was altered to ensure delivery of the first bus by the deadline.” The IG report described two city employees interviewed who recounted a “tense” and “unusual” phone call between then-city Chief Operating Officer Michael Riordan and top executives from the manufacturer. According to the Inspector General’s report the first bus delivered in August 2017, was assembled by the manufacturer using a “frame intended for buses being built for [another city’s transit authority].”
Frames intended for the Albuquerque’s buses had not yet been shipped nor received by the manufacturer. The Inspector General found that the bus manufacturer used “parts and pieces” intended for another city’s buses for the first ART bus delivered.
The city employee further reported that the first bus was moved to whatever assembly station was available to ensure it was assembled in time in order to get it shipped to Albuquerque before Mayor Berry left office.
The last 4 sentences of the 72-page Inspector General’s findings and report relating fraudulent activity is worth quoting:
“The inspection was proactive in nature and not due to any allegations that were made. While this inspection didn’t identify instances of fraud, it is important to note that it doesn’t mean fraud did not occur. The inspection did identify several problems that offer opportunities to improve and could be vulnerabilities for fraudulent behavior. City leaders should consider the problems identified and recommendations made to develop a more efficient and stronger procurement process that will help prevent and deter fraud, while also ensuring more quality and confidence in the products and services that the taxpayer funds. This is essential to protecting the public’s trust.”
Mayor Tim Keller and his administration never even bothered to forward the Inspector General’s report to a criminal investigating agency. When Keller was asked if he felt his predecessor should be criminally investigated for ART and be held accountable, he avoided answering the question
BUS RIDERSHIP DRAMATICALLY DOWN
On February 8, 2018, ABQ Reports reported that there has been a free-fall of bus ridership in Albuquerque since 2012 and it continued in 2017 as boardings fell by 10.6 percent from the previous year. According to the report, since 2012, when bus ridership peaked, yearly boardings have fallen by nearly 3.26 million, or an astonishing 25 percent. According to the Federal Transit Administration, bus boardings in Albuquerque totaled 9.7 million in 2017, down from 10.9 million in 2016, and from 11.8 million in 2015.
According to the ABQ Reports:
“Nationally, public transportation ridership was down by 3.1 percent for the first nine months of 2017 compared to the previous year, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Through the first nine months of 2017, there were 7.6 billion boardings, or unlinked passenger trips. That compares to 7.8 billion boardings through the first nine months of 2016.”
On March 5, 2019, the city’s ABQ RIDE Ridership Statistics by Route for Fiscal Year 2018 (July 2017 through June 2018) were released by the Keller Administration. You can read the report here:
The city report published by ABQ RIDE bus service shows a decreasing number of riders boarding buses in total and a decrease in ridership on some of the city’s bus system’s most popular routes. According to the statistics compiled by ABQ Ride for Rapid Ride buses, ridership fell from 1.91 million total riders on all Rapid Ride routes in FY 2017, to 1.65 million total riders on all Rapid Ride routes in FY 2018.
On the popular Route 66 bus across Central Avenue, the total number of riders fell from 2.26 million total riders in FY 2017, to 2.06 million total riders in FY 2017. Comparing the data between FY 2016 and FY 2018, the ridership decline is especially noticeable. In FY 2016 (July 2015-June 2016), ABQ Ride counted 11.20 million riders on all Rapid Ride and regular routes.
In FY 2018 (July 2017-June 2018) ABQ Ride counted 9.47 million riders on all Rapid Ride and regular routes.
Referring to the comparison between Fiscal Year 2018 and Fiscal Year 2017 data, Rick DeReyes, spokesman for ABQ Ride had this to say about the report:
“We had the Rapid Ride routes overall decrease about 15 percent ridership over the previous year, we had the Route 66 decrease in ridership about 9 percent. … We’re looking at decreases all over the country in ridership in most major cities. … Especially in the southwestern cities like Denver and Phoenix, comparable cities, but we’re talking about El Paso, Lubbock, Tucson, some of those cities as well.”
Reyes added that the city thinks low gas prices and ART construction on Central were in part to blame but said there are other factors. ABQ RIDE still thinks ART itself will get more people riding the bus once the service launches.
“Once we get a chance to get people to realize how much more timely that system will be, we’re hoping that people will be attracted to that” said DeReyes.
According to a news report, the city has started the process of reviewing the entire bus route system to see what can be changed to increase ridership. The problem with ART is that it is a specialized bus route that cannot be moved, changed or altered in any way because of the platforms built in the middle of Central.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
When Tim Keller was New Mexico State Auditor and just after one year in office as State Auditor, he started his campaign for Mayor saying he had stopped “waste, fraud and abuse” in government spending as State Auditor. He made a “white night” reputation going after government corruption and wasteful spending by government officials.
In 2016 and 2017, there were numerous public hearings for ART and even a Federal lawsuit to stop ART. State Auditor and candidate for Mayor Keller did not attend a single public hearing on ART nor a single federal court hearing. Tim Keller took absolutely no positions on ART as a candidate for Mayor. During his year and a half quest to become Mayor of Albuquerque, Tim Keller never called upon his Republican predecessor to stop the ART Bus project, nor to cancel the bus contract nor did he ever condemn it as destroying historical Route 66.
The ART project was clearly a case of “waste, fraud and abuse,” but as State Auditor, Keller did nothing to try and stop ART. Keller ran for Mayor on a platform of change, but once elected, he chose the “status quo” to continue with the project started by his Republican predecessor. From day one of being Mayor, Keller has said that too much has been spent on the project and it would be too costly to reverse the project.
Keller has now spent half of his term to clean up a mess that he could have easily ordered a stop to and cutting our losses. No doubt Keller is clinging to hope that the ART bus project will succeed so he can take credit for it now that he has announced he is running for a second term.
What a waste of opportunity and a destruction of historical Route 66 when Mayor Keller could have cut the city’s loses on day one of his term and cancelled the project. Soon after being elected, many met with him and encouraged him to order the project be stop. Keller was also warned that it would be upwards of 2 years or half of his term to clean up the mess, which has now happened. Instead, Mayor Keller chose the avenue of least resistance.
ALTERNATIVE USE SOLUTION PROPOSED
The solution into get rid of the dedicated bus lanes and return Central to the two-lane traffic it was in both directions and restore the 350 lost parking spaces on Central.
The white “elephant canopies” should be removed and the platforms stripped barren. An alternative use for the platforms that blends into the neighborhood architecture needs to be found. Such alternative use could be large sculptures to commemorate route 66, neon signage reminiscent of the 1950s and Route 66’s heyday or even planters for trees and nighttime lighting.
The $50,000 BURQUE sculpture could be place on one of the platforms as a permanent fixture. Designed sculptures could carry the theme of the platform’s locations, such as the Nob Hill platform, the UNM platform across the street from the Frontier Restaurant and the Old Town area platform.
The funding could have easily come from the Capitola Improvements Program with general obligation bonds placed on the November 5 ballot for voter approval, where $127 million in bonds were approved. Funding could also come from the “Art In Public Places” fund mandated for development.
Work on rededicating the bus platforms for other usage would not take as much time nor as much construction and no tearing up central the way ART did.
The $135 million ART Bus project was built on the philosophy “if we build it, people will use it”. Mayor Keller, the City Council and City voters and residents should know within a year if the such a philosophy has any merit.
Until then, Keller should use the time and make effort to develop a “back up” plan should bus ridership continue to drop and the ART Project is the failure so many believe it is. Keller’s re election bid may well depend on it.
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