Students will now get a seat on Amtran

For years, parents of Altoona Area School District students who had to stand on Amtran “tripper” buses on the way to and from school would call and complain, and for years, Amtran has maintained that the trippers are legally transit buses – not subject to the state law that says there must be a seat for every student.

No more.

By Monday, no riders on tripper buses will need to cling to a pole, as Amtran has spun off 235 students to the district’s yellow-bus contractor, while reallocating other standees to tripper buses with the room to seat them.

“We bit the bullet,” said Amtran General Manager Eric Wolf on Wednesday. “We decided to fix the problem.”

The legalities are ambiguous, according to Liz Benjamin, Amtran solicitor.

State law calls for school buses to provide a seat for every student but makes an exception for school buses operated by urban mass transit systems, she said.

PennDOT regulations, however, call for all school buses – including those operated by urban mass transit systems and used exclusively for students – to provide a seat for them all, she said.

Amtran has maintained that the tripper buses were not used exclusively for students, and so they didn’t need to conform to those regulations, she said.

Based on federal regulations, trippers must not be exclusively for students, Wolf said.

That became clear after a complaint by a local resident about a decade ago led to discussions with the Federal Transit Administration.

Following those discussions, all Amtran trippers have carried the sign “Public Bus” on their bumpers.

In theory, anyone can flag down a tripper, get on and pay the fare to ride, Wolf said.

In actuality, no one does, he said.

Parental complaints always died down soon after school began, mainly because students after the first few weeks needed identification cards to ride, reducing standee numbers by weeding out kids who were ineligible, because they lived too close to school, Wolf said.

But there were still standees.

And there was confusion – “lack of clarity,” Benjamin said.

“We just decided it’s time,” said Wolf, who said the transition has been ongoing for a couple of weeks. “It’s ultimately foolish to argue.”

And it may be safer, he conceded – while pointing out that public transit rules don’t prohibit the same student who rode a tripper home from school from hopping on a regular bus and riding as a standee all the way to the mall.

The school district didn’t pressure Amtran to make the switch.

“[But] we’ll support Amtran and its decision,” said Kathy Hazenstab, director of transportation.

The district worked with Amtran and yellow-bus contractor Student Transportation of America to make the transition, Hazenstab said.

Amtran couldn’t absorb all the excess students itself because it didn’t have enough drivers, Wolf said.

The authority is maxed out in the afternoons with trippers and regular routes, Wolf said.

Amtran has been notifying parents and students about the changes.

The changes won’t affect this year’s tripper contract between Amtran and the district, although it will reduce the number of tripper students to just under 700.

Wolf isn’t sure whether next year’s contract would reflect that smaller number of students.

Hazenstab is confident the changes are causing minimal disruption.

“It should be seamless,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.