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Albuquerque’s Groundbreaking Bus Project Stalled

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.

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Michael Kodranski 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."

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