Officials representing the private bus industry fear it could disappear unless Congress steps in, a coronavirus pandemic casualty that would wreak havoc on intercity travel, school buses, tourism, military transportation and disaster relief.
In 2020, the bus industry’s revenues dropped to $2.6 billion from about $15.3 billion a year prior, and the industry is on track to make $7 billion in revenue this year — a 50 percent drop-off, according to Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association.
According to the Transportation Department, there are currently 1,895 registered motorcoach carriers that employ 98,556 drivers on 67,814 vehicles. In December 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic struck, there were 3,878 registered carriers employing 228,854 drivers on 174,757 vehicles.
Buses are a relatively small slice of the transportation economic pie, but they conduct nearly as many passenger trips per year as airlines and act as a lifeline to communities nationwide isolated from air and rail transport.
“There’s about 3,000 cities that are served in that manner. You know, there’s a lot of places in this country where we are the only form of intercity passenger transportation. They don’t have Amtrak, they don’t have airlines in their community,” said Pantuso.
The industry has received $2 billion in grants as part of the federal government’s coronavirus relief efforts. But it has incurred $11 billion in pandemic-related losses, and bus companies at one point had furloughed up to 90 percent of their workforce.
And the $2 billion Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services (CERTS) program pooled the motorcoach, school bus, passenger vessel and pilotage industries together, meaning bus companies only received about half the total of grants awarded.
In September, 52 House members from both parties called on congressional leadership to include $6 billion in extra CERTS funding in the reconciliation bill, through which Congress expects to dole out upward of $2 trillion in spending over the next decade.
A day later, 16 Senate Democrats reiterated that call to leadership.
Although the final details of the reconciliation bill are still being negotiated, the bus industry is wary of being overlooked, as it was for the Senate-passed infrastructure package that bolstered other areas of transportation like highways and rail.
“I think we’re in much worse shape than a lot of other industries are and it’s a little frustrating because I do hear constantly — and I heard it last year and I’ve heard it again this year — the folks on the Hill really want to take care of those industries in particular that have been left behind or that have been hit harder by COVID,” said Pantuso.
Because many of its services require long-term planning, the bus industry was especially hard-hit by the delta variant surge.
“A lot of my bus operators would tell me that the phone was starting to ring, they were getting calls from tour companies who were starting to put together their ‘22 itinerary, they were getting calls from schools who were starting to put together that spring trip to D.C. for ‘22, and then again when the delta variant hit everything stopped,” said Pantuso.
And help was slow to arrive for the beleaguered industry.
The CERTS grants started going out to companies this summer, and the last of the grants was funded early in October.
To be eligible for the grants, companies had to prove at least a 25 percent reduction in revenue.
“Before they gave us anything, we had to show proof that we suffered more than 25 percent loss, which everybody in the industry did. So that wasn’t a hard thing to prove,” said Bill Torres, the owner of DC Trails bus service in Lorton, Va.
The grants helped fund payroll, services, operations and even leases, maintenance and insurance on equipment.
But the pandemic’s reduction in travel demand set off a downward spiral where operators were first forced to furlough their drivers and then could not find new drivers once demand ticked back up.
Like many bus company owners, Torres has gone back to driving his own buses at times to fill in for missing drivers.
Pantuso said many drivers who were near retirement age decided to call it quits, and the trucking industry and delivery services like Amazon quickly hired qualified and licensed drivers.
“There’s some states — I think California is probably the one I hear about the most — where getting a driver through the DMV ... can take as much as two or three months,” said Pantuso.
The bus industry is roughly split into three brackets: scheduled service, private commuter buses and the charter business.
In different parts of the country, all three brackets at times fulfill essential services for different communities.
Scheduled service buses often reach communities with no other intercity access, and apart from passengers can carry equipment and goods that otherwise would not reach some remote communities.
Private commuter buses are often the only means of daily transportation for suburban communities with a lack of public transportation.
And the charter business, apart from its economic benefits to the tourism industry, is often used by state and federal emergency services to shuttle workers to emergency areas and evacuate civilians from danger.
Torres’s company, for example, shuttled National Guardsmen to and from Capitol Hill in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Torres, a former Metropolitan Police Department special operations officer who founded DC Trails with his wife in 2000, said the extra business from the National Guard helped save his company.
“It needs to come fast because unlike other companies I’m at 50 or 60 percent of where I was, prior to the pandemic. Other companies may be at 20 or 25 or 30 percent,” said Torres. “I’m kind of like in a little unique area, Washington D.C., so it’s a little bit better than other parts of the country because we have the military, and they do a lot of different moves and require transportation.”
“But if something is not done, I think we’re [looking] into losing this industry,” he added.