For the Record: This story has been updated to fully reflect the route ART buses will take.
After months of criticism, controversy and conflict, outgoing Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry, along with dozens of officials and citizens, took the ceremonial first ride on the city’s Albuquerque Rapid Transit electric bus.
“It was a very pleasurable ride,” Berry said. “Very smooth and quiet.”
The bus even had that new car smell.
The $126 million project is now partially operational and is kicking off by offering free service to and from the Albuquerque BioPark’s River of Lights event on Friday and Saturday nights.
There was one hiccup, however: On Saturday evening, an ART bus shuttling riders to the show collided with a car whose driver made an illegal left turn, said ART Project Manager Dayna Crawford. “Somebody decided to take a left hand turn where they shouldn’t have taken a left hand turn,” she said.
Crawford said no one was injured and the bus sustained no major damage, continuing service afterward.
On Saturday morning, about 200 people gathered under a tent at the BioPark stop located in the center of Central Avenue.
“I’m glad we were able to get this thing kick-started while we’re in office,” said Berry, whose term ends Thursday.
Construction on the controversial project that involves connecting around 10 miles of Central from Coors to Louisiana via fully electric, articulated buses and stations located in the middle of the road is expected to be completed by the beginning of next year.
The full ART route will begin at Unser and Central and travel east to Tramway and also north to Uptown.
The idea is to create an experience similar to light rail travel – fast, easy, convenient – at a fraction of the infrastructure cost. Buses will generally travel in their own, dedicated lanes on the route.
Many owners of businesses along Central have said construction has been disastrous for business, and others have argued resources spent on the project could have been better used elsewhere, such as fighting crime.
“You might not realize how controversial the Golden Gate Bridge was. People hated it. It was going to destroy their way of life. It was going to be an environmental disaster. All the things that we heard about this, right?” said City Councilor Don Harris, who voted to proceed with the project in March 2016. “What we’re going to do over the next several years and hopefully the next several months is prove them all wrong.”
Project proponents say it will be an economic boon for the corridor, encouraging tourism and new business opportunities along the way.
The project received some positive attention Saturday with recognition from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which awarded ART the institute’s Gold Standard for Bus Rapid Transit Standard.
It’s the first BRT system in the country to receive the top designation.
“This doesn’t happen by accident,” said Michael Kodransky of the institute. “It takes political courage and, above all, political leadership.”
The institute considered infrastructure, environmental emissions, pedestrian access and other criteria when considering ART for the award.
Berry said ART is intended to serve a variety of users, from tourists looking to see the Duke City’s most popular destinations to families who live along the route.
“If you are a working family in the city of Albuquerque and you can shed one vehicle so that both parents can get to work with one less car, that’s a $9,000 raise for you and your family this year,” he said.
That’s exactly what Dennis Manaietta, a passenger aboard one of ART’s ceremonial loop rides on Saturday, is planning on doing.
“We recently lost a car and I’m retired, my wife still works,” he said. “She’s hoping she’ll be able to walk out the door, walk two blocks to the station, get on this and go to work instead of buying a new car.”
Free service to the River of Lights will be offered from the transit center at Central and Unser with stops at Coors, Yucca and Atrisco and drop-off at the BioPark station near New York Avenue.
Rides will be offered every 15 minutes from 6 to 10 p.m. through Christmas Eve.
Joanie Griffin, an ART spokeswoman, said heavy construction on the project is wrapping up, with landscaping, ticket vending machine and monitor installation and other finishing touches being completed.
She said stations on the route’s east side may be operational soon and also offer service to the River of Lights, an event that normally generates heavy congestion.
Seven of ART’s electric buses are currently operating and the total fleet of 18 buses will be ready by the end of the year, Griffin said.
The full system schedule has yet to be determined.
ART made its first scheduled trip as the sun set Saturday evening, shuttling about 30 people from the Unser Transit Center to the Albuquerque BioPark for opening night of the annual River of Lights holiday display at the Botanic Garden.
During the trip, which clocked in at under 10 minutes, laughter and conversation filled the bus – with riders talking about how quiet the engine was and the lack of constant stopping that seasoned riders are accustomed to.
The interior of the bus was also a topic of discussion, with many comparing it to the look of a modern subway car with sleek aluminum paneling, while festive Christmas lights strung along the poles added a holiday touch.
Kevin Cooper and his wife, Kelli, were very pleased with the ride to the BioPark.
“It was really nice, quiet – all we heard was the wind,” Cooper said, comparing the ride to a sailboat. “We were just sailing down Central.”
Cooper has ridden the city bus before and thinks the dedicated rapid transit lane is a big improvement to the system.
“It was great – we didn’t stop,” he said, observing the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Central.
Cooper, who has lived here since 1952, has supported ART from the start and compared the negativity during its inception and construction to the Big I when it was rebuilt.
“I went through the Big I,” he said. “You learn patience.”
Or as Berry said Saturday evening as service commenced for the public: “Like anything else in life, if you’re going to do something big, you’re going to run into some hurdles and bumps. We knew that going in.”