Monday, September 28, 2020

America's 3,000 bus companies make appeal for economic relief amid pandemic

Jul 12. 2020
William Torres, president of DC Trails, on his lot Wednesday in Lorton, Va., where many of his 70 motor coaches have been parked. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph
William Torres, president of DC Trails, on his lot Wednesday in Lorton, Va., where many of his 70 motor coaches have been parked. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph
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By The Washington Post · Luz Lazo · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, FEATURES, TRANSPORTATION, TRAVEL

In two decades, William Torres built one of the largest private bus companies in the nation's capital, ferrying millions of people to destinations within and outside the Washington region. 

Last year his buses carried 1.4 million people in the region and traveled 4.2 million miles. 

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. The cancellations began to pour in. All the trips lined up for spring and summer - $5.4 million in business - were canceled within days in March. No new trips have been booked for the fall. Most of the company's nearly 200 employees have been laid off, and many of its 70 motor coaches sit parked in a Lorton, Va., lot. 

"This knocked us back 10 years," said Torres, a retired District of Columbia police officer who lives in Prince William County and runs DC Trails with his wife and two sons. "We are definitely, definitely in trouble."

The pandemic has been a blow to the entire transportation industry, but the motor coach sector has been hit especially hard. 

Private bus trips came to a near-standstill as the pandemic forced schools to close, sporting events to cancel and people to stop traveling altogether amid the country's shutdown. Four months into the crisis, nearly 90 percent of the nation's private bus companies are still shut down, according to the American Bus Association, and there is little to no sign of recovery for the sector, which supports nearly 100,000 jobs.

Unlike the airlines and public transit, the private bus industry, also known for transporting commuters in major metropolitan areas such as Washington and New York, has received no economic relief from the government. Now some trade leaders and lawmakers say they hope that will soon change. 

Congress is considering a bailout for them. The Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services (CERTS) Act, introduced by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, on July 2, would provide $10 billion in emergency relief funding in the form of grants to the industry. 

"The road to economic recovery for these businesses is already long and steep, and in order to get our economy working again, the federal government needs to extend assistance to this critical link in our transportation network," said Reed, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. 

Bus operators provide essential transportation for millions of Americans, Reed said in a statement, noting that even during the crisis, motor coaches continued to serve communities, helping evacuate passengers stuck on cruise ships affected by the novel coronavirus, and to ferry troops. 

Bus operators and trade groups have been knocking on doors of members of Congress for months. In May, a caravan of motor coaches from across the country drove to the Capitol in a collective plea for federal aid. 

"You missed us. You missed the bus. You know, you've missed us," Torres, of DC Trails, said he tells his congressional representatives. "Our industry transports almost as many people as the airlines; however, we didn't receive any stimulus help from our government."

The roughly 3,000 bus companies across the nation - many of them small, family-owned businesses - carry 600 million passengers each year, compared with the airlines' 700 million domestic passengers. 

Although the industry is known mostly as the carrier for intercity travel and sightseeing group tours, it also provides critical transportation in local communities, from bringing air and cruise travelers to and from ports to taking grade school kids on field trips, college athletes to sporting events and commuters to jobs. The military contracts them to move troops between bases, to training and to and from deployments. When natural disaster hits, they are called in to evacuate people. 

Even so, said Peter Pantuso, president and chief executive of the American Bus Association, the industry was left to survive on its own while Congress made $50 billion in grants and loans available to airlines, $25 billion to public transit agencies and $1 billion to Amtrak. 

"Buses were the only form of passenger transportation that were left out," Pantuso said. "We were very disappointed, and we've been going up to Congress, literally every day we're on the phone with members of Congress, their staffs, their committees, talking about the help that this industry needs." 

The bus association and the United Motorcoach Association have been lobbying for $10 billion in grants and $5 billion in loans to the $15 billion industry.

A growing number of lawmakers in both chambers and parties are rallying for a motor coach bailout. In April, nearly 100 members of Congress sent a letter to House leadership urging support to rectify a "grave oversight" of leaving the bus industry out of America's largest bailout - the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package approved in late March.

In May, 27 lawmakers led by Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., wrote a letter of support urging Senate leadership to include the motor coach industry in a future stimulus package. 

"These businesses provide crucial transportation services for both commuters and long-distance travelers, and also support Maryland and the national capital region's tourism industry," Van Hollen said in a statement. "The Congress must continue working to provide support to those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we'll be looking for ways to include this relief in the next package."

Operators are hopeful the bipartisan CERTS Act will pass but say they need the aid soon. 

"Some of us aren't going to survive without help, and I could very well be one of those ones," said Albert Spence, owner of A.S. Midway Trailways, a small, family-run company of 15 employees in Baltimore.

His seven buses have not made a trip since mid-March when the fleet returned home from the canceled Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball tournament in Norfolk. The March Madness trips were canceled. Then the spring school field trips gone. So were group tours and conventions. 

"There's no explaining how devastating this has been," said Spence, 64. "And it's just a bleak look for the fall right now."

Bill Moberg, who operates a fleet of 80 buses in central Florida, said his company would usually make the year's earnings in March, April, May and June, ferrying cruise ship guests to and from port and taking students to end-of-year excursions. 

"Within four or five days we went to zero revenue, and we have pretty much been there since," Moberg said. Hope for business in the months ahead disappeared in late June, he said, when news came that the cruise lines would not return this summer as previously thought and that Florida was turning into a national coronavirus hot spot. 

"Things are getting rough now, so this may even extend a lot longer," Moberg said. Close to 100 employees have been laid off. Buses are parked, and every two weeks Moberg himself starts them and drives them around the lot to keep them in condition. 

So much of the motor coach business depends on other parts of the economy opening and people regaining confidence in group travel. Will schools reopen in the fall and resume field trips? Will seniors feel safe going on group tours? Will conventions resume? Will workers return to the office? Will people travel? 

"There are so many unknowns," Moberg said. The prospects for any return to normalcy this year are slim. Even the popular intercity trips are not returning quickly enough, nor are the commuter trips as more people work from home, trade leaders say. 

Spence, who chairs the Maryland Motorcoach Association, said in the Free State alone, of 35 member companies only a handful have active jobs - doing some of the commuter runs for the Maryland Transportation Administration. 

The MTA reduced commuter operations in mid-March, as the state enforced a shelter-at-home policy and ridership dropped by 95 percent. The state contracts with six companies to run commuter buses at a cost of $55.5 million. When bus service is reduced, private buses don't make trips or money. 

Commuter service, however, may be the first source of revenue for the industry to return. Maryland, for example, is planning to resume normal operations July 27. Still, that's only a small portion of the industry's business.

Intercity operations are also slowing returning. Providers such as Megabus and Greyhound have recently announced they are resuming some trips. 

Sean Hughes, director of corporate affairs at Coach USA, one of the country's largest bus companies and the parent company of Megabus, said it only recently resumed D.C.-to-New York trips and other routes across the country. The D.C.-to-New York line is doing three round trips a day, compared with 25 round trips pre-pandemic. As a safety precaution, buses are restricting capacity to 50 percent. 

Coach USA, which owns other private bus companies that provide airport transportation, tours and commuter services in 35 states, said 3,000 of the company's 5,000 workers are furloughed, and those working took a 40 percent pay cut starting at the end of March.

"We have high hopes that the [CERTS] bill will be picked up and move forward, because the overall industry needs relief," Hughes said. 

In Washington, Torres said his family has already poured its life savings into the business. In late May, the company called back some workers when it obtained a contract with Metro to transport commuters along a segment of the Orange Line that is closed because of a platform project. The contract, good until early September, has secured jobs for about 50 DC Trails drivers, he said. 

The company also resumed daily D.C.-to-New York trips, though it is only making eight trips instead of the usual 60, he said. Everything else - the contracts with Prince William County for senior trips, with Fairfax County Public Schools for field trips and with Georgetown and American universities for their athletes' travel - are halted. 

"If they don't go, we don't get paid," Torres said. 

 

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