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Funds sought for transit center

City to apply for $700K to renew Transportation Center downtown

The city plans to apply for up to $700,000 from Penn­DOT’s Multimodal Transportation Fund to renovate the downtown Altoona Transportation Center.

The estimated $1 million cost would require the city to provide a $300,000 match, which won’t be easy, given the likelihood of a budget shortfall due to systemic issues and possibly the loss of earned income tax revenue because of COVID-19, officials said.

Because the Transportation Center is managed by the Altoona Redevelopment Authority, discussion on the project led to proposals to reactivate that organization for major redevelopment work, as undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s — although that ambition may be out of reach due to lack of funding, officials said.

Work needed at the Transportation Center — which is inside of, but not part of, the parking garage managed by the Altoona Parking Authority — includes fixing many leaks in the roof and around windows, resurfacing overhangs above the 13th Street bus stop and the Amtrak platform, repairing structural issues and leaks on the 10th Street Expressway overpass and sprucing up the worn-out interior, which includes a passenger waiting room, according to City Manager Ken Decker and Community Development Director Lee Slusser.

“There’s a laundry list,” Decker said, adding that the center has been neglected for 25 years.

The work needs to be done so that the center remains structurally sound, Slusser said.

The project could include additional efforts to dress up the building — or even repurpose it, Slusser said.

Adding to the cost would be traffic control needed for work on the overpass and flagging needed for work along the train platform, Decker said.

The project is no longer being considered for funding with the $966,000 the city received from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Community Development Block Grants, allocated because of COVID-19.

A proposal to use that money for the center included creating a COVID-19 testing site there.

“HUD officials indicated to the Community Development Department that they didn’t think the project qualified,” Decker said.

Such a publicly owned site became unnecessary as more private sector testing sites have been added in the region, Slusser said.

The city could avoid the cost of renovation altogether by mothballing the center — given that Amtrak could rely on electronic ticketing here, Decker said.

But that option gained little traction.

It’s important for Altoona to maintain a station stop, said Councilman Bruce Kelley.

“I think it’s a service we need to provide,” Mayor Matt Pacifico said.

Several times as many people get on or off trains at the center than get on or off planes at the Altoona-Blair County Airport, Slusser said.

Closing the station would be a “regression,” compared to progress recently in revitalizing downtown, Pacifico said.

Moreover, without the center and the overpass that connects it with the train platform, it would be difficult to get passengers safely to that platform, said Ron Beatty, a member of the Redevelopment Authority.

The authority collects rent from center tenants, but the revenue is only enough for routine maintenance, according to officials.

It’s about $50,000 a year short of enough to save for capital needs like the proposed upgrade, Decker said.

Currently, there are only two tenants, Amtrak and Greyhound, with the Vineyard Altoona Church and Zoe’s Cafe having left not long ago.

At the suggestion of Councilman Dave Butterbaugh, the city plans to solicit letters of support for the grant application from local municipalities whose residents benefit from the center’s availability.

On Kelley’s suggestion, the city will consult with Amtran on the project, as Amtran takes care of the transit bus shelter it operates on 10th Avenue adjacent to the center — a property that, like the center itself, is the city’s.

Amtran has access to state and federal funds that might be able to help, officials said.

It might make sense for the Parking Authority to take over the center, because it has more ability to raise revenue than does the Redevelopment Authority, officials said.

Funding cycles

The Redevelopment Authority’s heyday was in the 1970s and 1980s, when it undertook a variety of major projects, Beatty said.

At the time, there was plenty of state and federal funding for redevelopment, Decker said.

Such funding goes in cycles — cycles that in more recent times has made homeland security funding plentiful, for example, he said.

The authority lost most of its clout when its functions were transferred to what became the Altoona Blair County Development Corp., Beatty said.

Aside from managing the Transportation Center, the authority now mainly oversees the transfer of small, residual properties to people who want to build homes or add to their side yards, said authority Chairman Richard Fiore.

The authority could become a big player again, especially in cooperation with the newly created Altoona Land Bank, whose board is identical with that of the authority, Pacifico said.

It could undertake projects that could do for Altoona what the Strip District and Bakery Square have done in recent years for Pittsburgh, the mayor said.

Decker agreed.

“But I don’t know where the money would come from,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

CARES Act funds

The COVID-19-related CDBG money, allocated under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, will go to:

* Transforming the former J&J Recycling center on Margaret Avenue into a storage facility for the city’s Hazmat team, $238,000.

* Catholic Charities rent and utility Assistance, $20,000.

* Salvation Army pandemic economic assistance, $50,000.

* Blair County Community Action community support, $217,000.

* Blair County Community Action rental assistance for the homeless, $83,000.

* Blair County Community Action homeless food delivery, $8,000.

* Altoona Blair County Development Economic Recovery Program, $200,000.

* The Nehemiah Project, providing meals, $51,000.

* Community Development Department program administration, $98,000.

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