Albuquerque, New Mexico, isn’t widely known as a transportation innovator. It’s biggest claim to fame in that regard may be the historic stretch of Route 66 that runs through downtown. But if the newly launched all-electric bus rapid transit (BRT) line, Albuquerque Rapid Transit, succeeds, the city may become a pioneer for a more sustainable, efficient, and most importantly, affordable means of urban mass transit.
The real revolution here, in addition to the all-electric fleet, is the speed of service. Many of the U.S. cities that have promoted BRT lines—which utilize bus-only lanes and quick-boarding stations in an effort to reproduce the benefits of light rail without expansive infrastructure investments—often don’t achieve the promised efficiencies due to poor design and lax signal priority.
But Albuquerque’s new line doesn’t take shortcuts. Advanced stations along its 10-mile route offer pre-boarding and the buses enjoy clear signal priority and traffic separation, making it the only gold-rated BRT service in the United States, according to the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. In addition to running quieter and cleaner due to electric engines, ART will be the first such line in the U.S. to truly demonstrate the potential of this kind of transit system.
“The mayor had the belief that this would change the community, and rightfully so,” says Dayna Crawford, the city’s deputy director of transit and project manager of ART.
The line will run down Central Avenue on the Route 66 Corridor, the commercial and economic spine of the city, with 18 American-made electric buses making stops every 7 to 8 minutes between 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. According to Crawford, the ART will offer a much faster ride down a main road often gridlocked with congestion. While the buses cost more upfront at $2.1 million per vehicle, reduced maintenance and fuel costs should save the city an estimated $10 million over the next decade.
The city’s outgoing Mayor Richard Barry pushed the mass transit investment as an economic catalyst. Albuquerque, which has a commuter rail connection to Santa Fe and an existing bus system, couldn’t afford light rail. But the more economical BRT, which would connect people, jobs, and businesses along the city’s main artery, was achievable, and projected to provide a $2 to $3 billion economic boost over the next few decades, according to a study by the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
Under construction since last October, the $126 million ART project, which benefitted from a number of federal grants, just had its soft launch, and will be fully operational in February, once final touches on stations are complete.
There was pushback from some small businesses along the route, afraid of crowds, construction, and lost business. Crawford and other city official set up a small business resource collaborative to help them upgrade their business practices, and offered loans to help them weather the roughest part of the bus system build-out.
Crawford says the city projects ridership to double in the first few years, and has built out enough charging infrastructure to support a fleet of 60 buses. Central Avenue is just the first in many additions included in the city’s 2040 transit plan. Crawford hopes that in the next few years, ridership data and economic stats demonstrate whether earlier predictions were accurate, and offer more incentive to expand the service.