The Department of Transportation announced Friday a $47 million program to help cities buy experimental buses that burn alternative fuels and produce little or no pollution, unlike conventional diesel buses.

Under the program, called the Alternative Fuels Initiative, the government will pay 75 percent of the cost of 600 buses nationwide that burn fuels such as compressed natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, ethanol and methanol."These fuels burn much cleaner than conventional gasoline and diesel engines, some so clean that their exhaust fumes do not even soil a white handkerchief," Transportation Secretary James Burnley said at a news briefing.

Transit systems face a 1991 deadline after which all new buses brought into service must comply with strict new federal emissions standards. These standards cannot be met by diesel engines but are easily met by alternative-fuel engines.

The primary objective of the new program is to demonstrate that alternative-fuel engines can withstand the day-to-day beating of city bus service so that local bus operators begin to order them on their own outside the program, Burnley said.

The department also hopes the demand created by the program will encourage diesel engine manufacturers to go into full-scale production of alternative-fuel engines, he said.

Appearing with Burnley, Sen. Alfonse

D'Amato, R-N.Y., a leading congressional advocate of alternative fuels, called on local transit authorities to take advantage of the program to experiment with alternative-fuel buses rather than just asking Congress to raise the emission standard or extend the deadline.

Urban Mass Transportation Administrator Al DelliBovi said he expects cities to respond quickly to the program, with the first applications coming in within 10 days.

The department, which already has subsidized 60 experimental methanol-powered buses, expects to award funding for all 600 buses by January, after which it will take 18 months before the first bus hits the streets, DelliBovi said.

So far, the handful of full-sized, alternative-fuel buses now on the road have cost roughly the same as diesel-powered buses, meaning that price is not the primary obstacle, he said.