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Amtran expects CARES funding

Routes remain intact despite ridership loss

Altoona’s transit agency expects to receive $3.73 million in CARES Act funding from the federal government, although all the limitations on its use aren’t clear yet.

The money coming to Amtran is part of $25 billion designated for transit agencies “to prevent, prepare for and respond to COVID-19” in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, with no local match required, according to the Federal Transit Administration website.

Amtran can definitely use the money for personal protective equipment, additional cleaning supplies and activities intended to ensure the safety of employees and riders, according to Amtran General Manager Eric Wolf.

“Beyond that, we’re getting conflicting signals,” he said Sunday.

Initial guidance indicated that transit agencies could use the money for any operating expenses, but “now it’s a little more confusing,” Wolf said, adding that such confusion is common for all sorts of coronavirus issues, with “good people trying to do their best under trying circumstances.”

The likelihood is that the FTA regulations will ultimately settle somewhere between direct efforts like an anti-germ coating the authority applied to surfaces in its buses and roof replacements for buildings at its Fifth Avenue headquarters, which might be “a stretch,” Wolf indicated.

He won’t hesitate to use the money where it’s needed, stretch or not, as long as the FTA approves, he said.

“It’s their money, and they get to make the rules,” he said.

The money will be available as reimbursement for projects after they’ve been paid for, after the authority submits documentation, Wolf said.

The money should help keep transit systems operating and help pay workers laid off due to slowdowns, according to an FTA news release.

Despite losing half its ridership — down now to about 500 a day — Amtran has kept its routes intact, except for elimination of the school “tripper” buses that serve the Altoona Area School District, according to Wolf.

Big cities can expand their schedule intervals from 30 minutes to 60 minutes, but expanding Amtran’s 60-minute intervals would mean eliminating service altogether, Wolf said.

“There’s no intermediate step,” he said.

There has only been one layoff — a voluntary one — of a recently hired employee unable to obtain a commercial driver’s license due to the COVID-19 shutdown, Wolf said

Amtran has been losing revenue since mid-March — not because of the ridership reduction, but because it has suspended collection of fares, while asking passengers to enter buses through the rear doors, so they and drivers can keep a safe distance from one another.

Amtran has also been requiring riders to wear masks.

Although ridership is down, there are occasions when buses threaten to become crowded, so the organization has been posting “helper” buses at Walmart and downtown to ensure the maintenance of social distancing, Wolf said.

Passengers can no longer simply “ride around,” but must have a specific destination, based on a “life-sustaining purpose,” according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-home order, according to a notice on the Amtran website.

Amtran had to explain that prohibition to a few riders who previously made a habit of riding for its own sake, according to Wolf.

Other transit agencies have had significant problems enforcing that order, according to Wolf.

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