With no aid in sight, motor coach industry predicts abyss

The motor coach industry has not received as much pandemic aid as others in the transportation sector. Trade group sees a grim future

Motor coach companies organized a rally in Washington in May to urge Congress tio provide the industry with support to get through the coronavirus pandemic. ((Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo))
Motor coach companies organized a rally in Washington in May to urge Congress tio provide the industry with support to get through the coronavirus pandemic. ((Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo))
Posted September 16, 2020 at 6:00am

DeCamp Bus Lines in Montclair, N.J., began as a horse-and-buggy business 150 years ago, supporting six generations of the DeCamp family.

It endured the transition to motorized vehicles beginning in 1909 and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, not to mention two world wars, the Great Depression and Sept. 11.

Now, a global pandemic has called its future — and the future of the entire motor coach industry — into question.

DeCamp, which pre-pandemic delivered between 6,500 and 7,000 commuters a day to New York, suspended commuter operations in March. On June 8, it reopened, carrying 400 passengers on a good day. 

But those days weren’t good enough; on Aug. 7, the company suspended commuter operations again, idling 75 percent of the company’s business. 

[Amtrak asks for $4.9 billion to stay afloat]

The company’s charter operations, which accounts for the remaining 25 percent, has similarly suffered. 

“There’s no business out there,” said Jonathan DeCamp, the company’s vice president and chief operating officer.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, transit, aviation and Amtrak watched as their ridership plummeted. But those modes received support from Congress: A $2 trillion coronavirus spending law (PL 116-136) doled out $25 billion to transit, $61 billion to aviation and $1 billion to Amtrak. Now, all three of those modes are asking for a second round of funding as the pandemic drags on.

The motor coach industry has not been as fortunate, and now, the industry is offering increasingly grim predictions of what that will mean. 

The $2 trillion law gave nothing to the motor coach industry, which includes 3,000 small businesses, save a few individual small business loans to specific companies. Now, a trade group says as much as 40 percent of its companies in the industry may be out of business by year’s end. Already, 36,000 buses have been idled and 100,000 employees have been furloughed, according to the American Bus Association.

“They kind of forgot about us,” Jeff Greteman, president of Windstar Lines in Carroll, Iowa, said of Congress. His company has also been pummeled by the pandemic. 

Critical services

The industry group said its members do far more than just move tourists and commuters. They’re also used by sports teams transporting players, evacuees fleeing natural disasters and to move National Guard units. 

The industry has taken some comfort in a House bill (HR 7642) and a Senate bill (S 4150) that would provide it $10 billion, but they have not advanced from committee. Nor has the industry been included in the $3.4 trillion House bill that passed in May (HR 6800) or either of the recent measures (S 4320, S 178) the Senate has floated.

With weeks before Congress goes into recess, prospects look grim. The industry is so concerned that its main lobbying arm, the American Bus Association, sent out an “obituary” for the industry in anticipation of its demise. 

Greteman, of Windstar, said his company has had to furlough all but 25 of its 406 employees.The company is diversified, serving tour groups, sports teams and conventions, but that didn’t matter when the pandemic hit.

“Pretty much every facet of our business died overnight,” he said. 

He said his company has savings, and believes it can hold on until spring, “But between now and then, a lot of operators are not going to make it,” he said.

Part of that is because it’s a high capital industry — the average motor coach costs $550,000. Banks have deferred payment and interest so far, but they can’t do it forever, he said.

The closures may start during the height of hurricane season, when many cities rely on motor coaches to help evacuate residents of affected areas.

Even larger companies are reeling.

Coach USA, one of the biggest private bus companies in the country, halted three charter operations in Pennsylvania and Ohio a little more than a month ago, putting more than 400 people out of work. 

Of the company’s 5,000 employees, 2,800 are furloughed, and the rest have taken a 40 percent cut in pay.

“Congress missed the bus in the CARES Act,” said Sean Hughes, the company’s director of corporate affairs, referring to the $2 trillion bill passed in March. “But they could now, moving forward, certainly get everyone back on the bus in the next relief package.”

DeCamp said his company is in “dire straits.”

Should the industry contract, he said, it will leave post-pandemic New Yorkers without what had once been a reliable way to get to work.

“I’d hate to be the one trying to get through the Lincoln Tunnel without motor coaches on the road when this pandemic is over with,” DeCamp said.