Transportation providers focused on the relief bill parade

As the latest relief legislation heads to the Senate, public and commercial transportation providers assess their needs

Public transit systems like Washington's Metro, got a specific nod in the latest relief legislation.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Public transit systems like Washington's Metro, got a specific nod in the latest relief legislation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 18, 2020 at 10:39am

With the latest coronavirus aid legislation headed to the Senate after passing the House on Friday, commercial and public transportation providers are considering what they’ve won and lost so far — and what they want in the next round.

Todd Hauptli, president and CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives, acknowledged the regrettable situation for the industry at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing May 6.

“I recognize it’s not popular to come up here and ask for more help, but the scale and the scope of this crisis requires it, and we are going to have to get past the sticker shock and get to ‘yes,’” he said.

Airports, which received $10 billion in the roughly $2 trillion March relief measure (PL 116-136), asked for another $10 billion in the round (HR 6800) just passed by the House.

Amtrak, which received $1 billion in March, said while that money would help it through this fiscal year, it would need $1.6 billion on top of the $2 billion they typically ask in fiscal 2021.

Transit, which received $25 billion in the March measure, had asked for $23.8 billion more. 

Of those three, only transit would get a specific nod in the House bill: $15.75 billion. But the House bill also included $15 billion for highways from the general fund, as well as nonspecific language that would allow the Airport and Airway Trust Fund to borrow from the general fund to meet its needs.

[House spending bill would boost transit, Amtrak, highways]

Many other transportation-related requests have been unanswered. 

The motorcoach industry, which includes charter buses, private transit and passenger buses, has asked for $15 billion to help survive the crisis, including $10 billion in grants and $5 billion in loans. 

Instead, the House bill included $750 million in grants for intercity bus providers. The allocation, said American Bus Association President and CEO Peter Pantuso, is “a great start, but it’s not enough to save jobs and an industry that provides essential and diverse services to every walk of life in America.”

State transportation departments also didn’t get as much as they said they needed.

Highway money

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials asked for $50 billion in direct emergency assistance to state departments of transportation, garnering support for their request from 137 House members from both parties. 

Instead, the House put $15 billion in its bill for state departments of transportation. That was good news because it was at least something, but not quite what they had asked for, said Jim Tymon, executive director of AASHTO.

Tymon said states have watched their gas tax revenues plummet as millions of Americans remain homebound to avert spreading the novel coronavirus. State highway departments have responded by furloughing employees and pulling back on planned projects, acknowledging the uncertainty about the pandemic’s duration and future severity. 

Tymon said he’s hopeful the House bill is a starting point and that more money is ultimately added in. With far less than the $50 billion they asked for, “we know we’ll still see states pull back on projects,” he said. But the number of projects they’ll have to pull back on, he said, “is a lot fewer than if the $15 billion wasn’t there.”

Speaking outside the Capitol Friday, Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., the chairman of the House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, defended the bill, saying “a big part of the state and local aid goes for transportation — that far outstrips any specific provisions.”

'Seriously?'

But Rodney Davis, R-Ill., a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was less thrilled.

“$10 billion in a $3 trillion package for infrastructure?” he marveled, underestimating the $15 billion in the bill. “Seriously?”   

Truckers groups have been split. While the American Trucking Associations is arguing for liability overhaul and excise tax relief, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has urged for measures including increased driver compensation and hazard pay and improved Small Business Administration assistance. They’ve also asked Congress to suspend the heavy vehicle use tax and unified carrier registration fees for 2020. 

At least for now, some industry groups that benefited from previous coronavirus spending bills are holding off on further asks.

At the May 6 Senate Commerce hearing, Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. airlines, said his organization hopes it will “not have to come back and ask for more money.”

Airlines received $61 billion in the roughly $2 trillion March measure.

And though a group of lawmakers from automaker states of Ohio and Michigan have asked House leadership to single out the U.S. auto industry for aid in the next bill, the industry is not currently making a request, said  John Bozzella, president and CEO at the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the leading U.S. auto industry group.

He said the $2 trillion coronavirus law created much-needed liquidity for the industry, even though the sales environment remains uncertain.

Others are still hoping for an initial infusion of support from the federal government.

The Near Airport Parking Industry Trade Association, which represents the approximately 12,000 employees who work in parking garages and lots near airports, didn’t qualify for the $10 billion in aid from the $2 trillion coronavirus law, and many of the companies didn’t qualify for other loans under that act because of their size or debt load. 

The industry trade association isn’t asking for a specific earmark in the bill. But it does want minor tweaks to permit them to apply for the loans. 

The industry sent out a statement Friday lamenting their omission from the latest package, saying “we are disheartened to see yet another massive aid package that is again lacking in assistance for our larger members and does not provide immediate liquidity relief for an industry in dire need.”   The industry, said Rob Chavez of Cincinnati-based Fast Park, “has been decimated,” but has been unable to access federal help. 

His company, which used to run its garages with between eight and 20 employees, is now doing so with just two workers.  

“It’s a month to month situation here,” he said. “It sounds almost ridiculous to say it, but companies weren’t built for no revenue.”