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'Low-floor' bus could aid parks, cities

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho, Oct. 29 (UPI) -- Visitors to two Western national parks soon could be the first to see a clean-running, handicap-friendly bus designed with the help of a Department of Energy laboratory, a project engineer said Tuesday.

The 18- to 32-passenger bus has a "low-floor" design, incorporating a hydraulic suspension and other features that eliminate the need for raising the passenger compartment to fit in a drivetrain, said Kerry Klingler, project manager for the bus at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

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The design replaces current two- or three-step entryways with a single, 8-inch-high step, Klingler said. The project team includes staff from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks as well as commercial vehicle companies, he said.

To meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the bus would extend a gentle ramp from the step, instead of deploying a cumbersome, time-consuming, difficult-to-maintain wheelchair lift, Klingler told United Press International via telephone.

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Transit companies won't have to worry about other after-market modifications either, he said.

"This was designed from the ground up to accommodate alternative fuels," Klingler said. "The (current prototype design) can take the natural gas equivalent of 40 gallons of gasoline -- natural gas is the worst case, since you need multiple bottles to get the distance you need."

The natural-gas engine has extremely low emissions of greenhouse gas components and other pollutants, Klingler said. The bus also will easily accommodate propane and other fuels as they become available.

The program came about because the parks wanted an economical, year-round transit vehicle, Klingler said. As a result, the prototypes have clear roofs for scenic viewing, theater-style seating on the basically flat floor, and other amenities. Early mockups drew a great deal of praise from both Yellowstone visitors and attendees at a transit convention, he said.

The basic tourist vehicle design, however, easily could be adapted for an airport shuttle, school bus or even a delivery vehicle, Klingler told UPI, since the ease of entry would increase efficiency. Initial production of the vehicle is expected late in 2003, he said.

The design likely will generate orders from a wide range of transit providers, said Scott Bogren, associate director of the Community Transportation Association of America in Washington, D.C. The design's lack of aftermarket revisions means it should provide safer, more reliable service, Bogren told UPI.

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"A lot of (current) body-on-chassis vehicles are good, but they're only designed to last five years and a limited amount of miles," Bogren said. "With limited federal investment for a lot of our folks, they end up operating those buses a lot longer than they probably ought to be."

Both rural and urban transit systems are looking at purchasing larger fleets of smaller vehicles, Bogren said, and the new design's built-in disability ramp is a bonus.

"It makes sense in terms of finding some universality in the vehicles used, so that it can meet ADA requirements but also serve commuters, seniors, Head Start clients or someone going to medical care," Bogren said. "Any designs that start to address the needs of people that way, we think are good designs and ones we hope to see more of."

(Reported by UPI Emerging Applications Writer Scott Burnell in Washington.)

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