CHICAGO (WBBM) – As fuel prices shoot through the roof, Pace is taking a look at a bus that would not only be cheaper to operate — it would make rides a lot quieter for riders.

The bus would be powered by compressed natural gas.

Pace buys its diesel fuel in bulk, but on the spot market. It currently is paying $2.85 a gallon, 50 cents a gallon more than budgeted.

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At an agency that uses 6 million gallons of diesel fuel a year, the budget overruns can pile up quickly.

So Pace board members were attentive as representatives from North American Bus Industries (NABI) pitched an option to buy 45-foot buses powered by natural gas — quickly.

Pace would be able to buy close to 100 buses, exercising an option not needed by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, at a cost of $500,000 apiece for 40-foot buses and $600,000 for 45-foot buses.

NABI has a spotty history in Chicago. The CTA purchased more than 200 articulated NABI buses in 2003-04, but removed them from service prematurely in February 2009, amid countersuits, because of cracks found in the buses’ frames, particularly around the articulation joints, axles and suspensions.

CTA alleged that the overall workmanship and design was deficient, charges that NABI denied.

The bus NABI showed Pace board members this week is not articulated. Executive Director T.J. Ross said more than 500 identical buses are running well in Los Angeles, and nearly 100 have had few problems in Phoenix.

NABI compressed natural gas buses are also in use in smaller fleets in two Illinois cities — Springfield and Rock Island.

Ross said the compressed natural gas technology is proven. He said that in all, Los Angeles has 900, and has retired the last of its diesel buses.

“The advantages of compressed natural gas is the fuel is cheaper, the emissions are lower and the engines are pretty quiet,” he said.

Ross said that natural gas-powered buses will be cheaper to buy and operate than hybrids. Pace made its first venture into alternative fuel vehicles last fall when it purchased two hybrid buses, to be used in Highland Park.

No decisions have been made by the Pace board. Up front costs include installation of fueling facilities. Ross said a fueling station can be delivered on a flatbed truck and hooked up easily to existing natural gas lines but would cost as much as $2 million.

Pace has nine garages, but Ross said not all would have to be equipped at once because integration of alternative-fuel vehicles into the fleet would be gradual.

If Pace takes the plunge, Ross said natural gas-powered buses could show up first on the 755/Plainfield-Medical Center and 855/Plainfield-East Loop express routes that will begin to ply the Stevenson median strip in November, as well as on its paratransit fleet.

Pace is trying to determine if it will buy a fleet of paratransit buses instead of continuing to contract for vehicles with private operators. Ross said Pace would be far more likely to move ahead if the decision is made to buy a paratransit van fleet.

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