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Quick, Quiet, Clean: The Bus Of the Future Debuts in LA

Designers say it heralds the end of an era of behemoth buses that belch gritty fumes on pedestrians and neighboring cars.

Commuters hope it means a quieter, faster ride and, for those tired of maneuvering steep stairs, easier access.

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US Transportation officials say it's the future of bus transportation in America, thanks to four years of research "stealth" technology borrowed from B-2 bombers.

"The MTA expects [the Advanced Technology Transit Bus] to become the new standard transit bus for the 21st century," said Joseph Drew, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority's chief executive officer, as the new prototype rolled out here last week.

A collective effort of government, defense-industry giant Northrop Grumman, and design representatives from 19 US cities, the new lightweight, low-emission bus has been dubbed the "Stealth Bus" because it's manufactured with the same lightweight materials used in Northrop Grumman's B-2 Stealth bomber. The $51 million program is one of the largest transit projects ever funded by the federal government.

Measuring 40 feet, the same length as most existing buses, the new bus looks like a conventional, aluminum-skin vehicle but is made of glass-composite with a fiber core - cutting 9,000 pounds off the standard 30,000-pound vehicle. It operates on compressed natural gas that powers a generator, delivering electricity to turn the rear wheels.

The lighter weight and engine drive make for more fuel efficiency, lower emissions, quicker acceleration, and a quieter ride.

Mechanical features normally housed beneath a bus are stored on top, allowing the floor to be level with the curb, eliminating the need for steps and allowing quicker entries and exits.

"Designers have been looking to create a design like this since the 1970s," says C. Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corp., a private Washington-based consulting firm.

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"The two goals were always getting a low floor and making [the bus] less polluting. This is a major step in the right direction for Los Angeles and eventually transit authorities from coast to coast," he says.

Six prototypes will be tested in Los Angeles and five other cities - as yet unannounced - in the coming year. The public will begin taking rides in 1997, officials say.

It's uncertain, however, whether the new prototypes will end the nightmares of officials who have pioneered cleaner-burning buses in the past. The Los Angeles MTA just last month recalled 120 natural-gas-powered buses after a gas tank erupted. They have also had to spend millions converting methanol-burning buses to ethanol because of design flaws.

Several other cities, from Chicago to New York, had to ground hundreds of Grumman-designed buses because of cracks that developed in their frames. But officials here say it is precisely these past problems that the new bus is designed to conquer. Each Stealth Bus costs about $337,000, about $10,000 more than other recently purchased buses.

But the MTA has projected that it could save $8 million a year on fuel and $1.8 million in brake repairs if it were to replace its entire fleet of 2,100 buses with the new model.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California says the bus project would also provide thousands of local manufacturing jobs in one of southern California's key economic sectors, which has been obliterated in recent years by defense and aerospace layoffs. "We're going to see this bus all over America. And they're going to be made right here in southern California," Senator Boxer says.

US Secretary of Transportation Federico Pea, also present at the unveiling here, says exporting the bus abroad could even lower America's trade deficit by becoming a leading export.

"In the next century, I believe when we visit our friends in Asia or Europe or South America, we'll be riding on American-made buses," Mr. Pea said.

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