Bus companies want in on the recovery largesse

After seeing money go to Amtrak and airlines, motorcoach operators want $15 billion in grants and loans

A Greyhound bus drives through Washington after departing Union Station.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A Greyhound bus drives through Washington after departing Union Station. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 28, 2020 at 5:25am

Lawmakers allocated $61 billion to airlines, $25 billion to transit and $1 billion for Amtrak in the roughly $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package, but the motorcoach industry, which includes charter buses, private transit buses and passenger buses, said it has been largely ignored.

And if their industry goes under, they argue, an important and often overlooked leg of the nation’s transportation system will disappear.

They’ve watched their ridership bottom out since the coronavirus pandemic began spreading in the United States in mid-March, and now they’re asking for $15 billion – $10 billion in grants, $5 billion in loans – to help them survive the crisis. 

“When the other modes don’t run, we do,” said Peter J. Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, which represents 3,000 companies that employ about 100,000 people. When transit and Amtrak break down, buses are often the fall-back mode of transportation, he said. And after 9/11, he said, buses helped transport people after the airline system broke down. “We’re there and available when other modes can't be or aren’t.”

[Airlines boosted lobbying as pandemic spread]

His organization represents private transit buses that ferry commuters into cities from the suburbs charter buses and scheduled bus lines, such as Greyhound. 

His association has sounded the alarm since the early days of the pandemic, even before Congress took up the $2 trillion bill that provided aid to other transportation services. 

Now, it’s hoping either for the Treasury Department to allocate some of that $2 trillion to the industry or to include it in whatever recovery legislation Congress passes next. 

A boost

On Friday,the association received a hefty boost, when House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell asking them to carve out $5 billion in loans from the coronavirus spending measure passed March 27 for the motor coach industry. The law included $454 billion in loans to help struggling companies.

The lawmakers wrote that if the “bus companies go out of business, hundreds of thousands of travelers who rely on buses to get to their jobs and reach vital services, intermodal connections and educational facilities, especially in rural America, risk losing what may be their only means of transportation.”

Pantuso said the letter helped the industry make its case, but “if we want to see the industry survive at some level – and I don’t think it will ever be the same as it was before March – we need both grants and loans.”

“If we want to keep the industry alive at some level, just adding loan debt doesn’t work for everyone,” he said.

Doug Anderson, president of the Greenville, Pa.-based Anderson Coach and Travel, typically does his best business this time of year: College sports travel and student field trips to Washington make spring the most lucrative time of the year. 

But not this year.

The company hasn't had a vehicle on the road since March 15. “We have not moved a wheel in the month of April,” Anderson said. “Nor do we anticipate moving any wheels in the month of May.”

The company has had $4 million worth of cancellations to date. He has had to lay off all but seven of the company’s 277 employees.

Were a bus operator to use social distancing measures in a 56-passenger bus, it could just accommodate 14 people, Anderson said. A college football team that historically needed three buses would need 10 instead.

He’s not sure when or if the business will ever be the same. Still, “we’re hoping we can return to some sort of normal, whatever normal might be, in late summer or early fall,” he said.

“We’re like the hotel and the rest of the hospitality businesses,” he said. “We’re trying to weave our way through how we can get customer confidence back enough to allow them to feel comfortable sitting in a motor coach.”

Loading the player...