Last August, the Regional Transportation District staged an early-morning press event to ballyhoo new shuttles coming to the 16th Street Mall. But while 36 of the vehicles were supposed to be moving passengers along this iconic stretch more than two months ago, only a handful have been delivered thus far, and an RTD spokesman confirms that there's no definitive date when the others will be on the road.
"We were supposed to have all of them in service by the end of 2016," says RTD's Scott Reed. "But they are overdue."
Disappointment over the delay stands in contrast to the fanfare with which RTD announced the new rides. In an August 25, 2016, post headlined "What Went Down on the 16th Street Mall Before the Sun Came Up," we offered a behind-the-scenes look at their introduction, which was scheduled during the wee hours so that local network television affiliates could report live from the scene multiple times during their morning shows. Most, if not all, major news agencies in the city were represented.
Among the factoids dispensed at the gathering: The 36 new shuttles set to be deployed are all-electric and can operate for an entire day on a single charge. They were intended to replace a fleet that's been on the job for sixteen-plus years and has been handling an estimated 45,000 passengers per day and nearly 1.4 million per annum.
Since then, however, only a few of the buses have made their way to the Mile High City, and Reed puts the blame on their creator, BYD Motors Inc., a Chinese company that's reportedly a favored investment of Berkshire Hathaway, billionaire Warren Buffett's Nebraska-based multinational holding company.
"BYD is late," Reed notes. "We have expressed and continue to express our displeasure with them."
The problems aren't design-based, he insists. "The new shuttles are great," he stresses. "It's just taking them longer to manufacture them than they anticipated."
Denver isn't the only municipality in this situation. "There are other transit agencies across the country that have also ordered buses from BYD and are experiencing a delay," Reed allows.
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At this point, it's unclear if BYD will be given any sort of monetary penalty for its tardiness. But Reed says the company isn't collecting interest on unearned RTD cash: "They get paid when they deliver vehicles. We haven't given them the money up front."
Even so, Reed makes it clear that the holdup has been costly. "We did a rehab — they call it a midlife rehab — on the old shuttles several years ago, and they're still operating. But they're beyond their designed life, and they're becoming more expensive to maintain. Just like with any older vehicle, you end up making more repairs than you do on a newer vehicle, so it costs more and more just to keep the vehicles going."
Not that RTD is ready to pull the plug on the BYD deal. According to Reed, RTD officials have been talking to the company "about their delivery plans and production schedule to get us the vehicles in a specific time frame."
Until then, there definitely won't be any more enthusiastic press events about new 16th Street Mall shuttles.