Clean-Air Bus Plan Plagued by Problems : Transit: The fleet has been idled by ear-splitting transmission noise. And temporary replacements haven't fared much better.


Nobody said being politically correct would be easy. Take, for instance, the city of Los Angeles' plan to put 20 clean-air buses on three commuter routes in the San Fernando Valley.

It was a well-meaning idea: The city would offer commuters a way to get to work hassle-free while striking a blow for the environment. But from the start, the plan has been plagued by mishaps and delays.

Although all 20 buses were expected to be on the road by the end of 1991, most still sit idle in a Van Nuys lot.

The delays began as early as the bus assembly process. And once they began to arrive in Los Angeles nearly a year behind schedule, the city stopped delivery because of an ear-splitting transmission noise that made riding the buses almost unbearable.

The city then leased about 20 aging tour-type buses to temporarily replace the environmentally friendly-but-ear-offending buses. But riders raised a stink when the old buses began to break down and the air conditioning failed in the middle of last summer.

"It was not a happy summer," said Phil Aker, a city transportation supervisor who responded to the complaints generated by the 1,000 or so daily riders on the three routes.

The idea for adding clean-air buses was proposed in 1990 by Mayor Tom Bradley as part of his 20-point plan to reduce traffic and smog in the city. The natural gas-powered buses, called Apollos, were to be added to existing routes in the San Fernando Valley because they could refuel at a compressed natural gas station in Van Nuys.

The Apollos are priced at $285,000 each and consume mostly compressed natural gas but use small amounts of diesel fuel to help the engine start quicker.

The Apollos were proposed for three commuter lines from Thousand Oaks, Van Nuys and Chatsworth to downtown Los Angeles.

The city Department of Transportation ordered the buses from a Houston firm in March, 1991, and expected them by the end of the year, Aker said. But a spokesman for the company said delivery was delayed because the hulls of the buses were held up in Brazil, where they are manufactured by the Mercedes-Benz Co.

The buses finally began to arrive last fall, but transportation officials soon learned of the ear-piercing transmission noise when the buses ran at freeway speeds.

C. James Stewart, vice president of marketing for Stewart and Stevenson Services Inc. of Houston, said the same buses operate in Texas with few complaints.

"They are just as loud in Texas, but we aren't as worried about it as the people in California," he said.

He said the buses were designed for slower, surface-street travel and not for highway speeds, which will increase the transmission noise.

The transmission generated about 83 decibels of noise at 35 m.p.h. but the noise increased to 90 decibels at 60 m.p.h., Stewart said. (Eighty-three decibels is equivalent to the noise generated by a telephone ringing a few feet away, while 90 decibels is roughly equivalent to the noise of a jet taking off overhead.)

Stewart and Stevenson agreed to add noise-dampening insulation to the buses at no cost to the city.

City officials put a few of the buses with the noise insulation on short-distance routes. But Aker said the noise was still unacceptable, so the city persuaded the bus manufacturer to fix the offending transmission noise, again at no extra cost to the city. The work is expected to be completed on all 20 buses by next month, Aker said.

The few riders who have tried the Apollos say the noise is unbearable.

"I put my Walkman on and I couldn't even hear that," said a longtime rider, who described the noise as deafening.

The older tour-type buses that the city leased to replace the Apollos have also been poorly received by some riders.

Melissa Anderson, who has taken the commuter line from the Valley for 1 1/2 years, said the older buses are "horrendous during the summer" when the air conditioning failed. "The aisles are really narrow, so it's like a fire hazard," she added.

Bill Zihlmann, a bus commuter from Encino, called the older buses "behemoths" and said he has seen the buses break down eight to 10 times in just one month.

Lisa Bernstein, a Sherman Oaks resident who has taken the commuter buses to downtown Los Angeles for about three months, said the riders on the older buses have circulated a petition to complain about the aging vehicles.

She didn't care for them either.

"The older buses are not as comfortable," she said. "The seats are itchy and they smelled like old buses."

Mario Dombrower, an Agoura resident and a bus commuter for three months, complained to officials that the buses are crowded. He's glad to see new, roomier vehicles on the way, but concedes that even the aging buses have some appeal.

Said Dombrower: "It's still better than driving."

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