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Motorcoach industry struggles, seeks $15B in federal aid

Stacy Wescoe//May 8, 2020

Motorcoach industry struggles, seeks $15B in federal aid

Stacy Wescoe//May 8, 2020

Trans-Bridge Lines has hired back most of its laid-off staff, but buses still aren’t running. PHOTO/SUBMITTED –

 

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most businesses in the region, Tom JeBran, owner of Trans-Bridge Lines of Bethlehem had to lay off 121 of his 165 employees because demand for bus service collapsed and keeping the busses running was no longer viable.

Now, thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program, LeBran has been able to hire back most of them. He put them to work servicing and updating vehicles, cleaning and training to prepare for the day commuter and charter bus service can resume.

But PPP only helps for eight weeks, he said. What happens after that?

Unless something major changes, he’ll likely have to lay those people off again. The PPP just isn’t enough help.

Like the restaurant industry, the motorcoach industry is unlikely to get back to normal conditions anytime soon.

The American Bus Association estimates that nationally, the motor coach industry and, in particular charter buses, will likely only return to around 25% capacity by the end of the year.

Even if TransBridge can return to 50% capacity, which will likely be the limit set upon his industry by surrounding states, it isn’t viable, JeBran said. “You can’t survive very long on that,” he said. To even attempt to do so would mean doubling fares and he doubts many people would be willing or able to pay that.

Because of such circumstances, and because of the likelihood that many small- to medium-sized bus companies may fold, the motor coach industry is asking the federal government for more help.

Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, said his organization has been joined by many regional bus associations, including the New Jersey Motor Coach Association, of which Trans-Bridge is a member, in calling for federal aid. The industry is asking for $15 billion in aid, with $10 million in grants and $5 million in loans, to help bus companies survive the long-term damage of the COVID-19 crisis.

He noted that the federal government included $85 billion in the last stimulus package for airports, transit systems and trains.

“Motorcoach was the only transportation industry to not get funding,” Pantuso said. “We aren’t asking for more. We were left out.”

There are around 3,000 motorcoach companies with more than 36,000 vehicles on the road and 100,000 people employed in the industry, Pantuso said. Many other industries, including restaurants, theaters and sports venues also rely on revenue brought in by people taking bus trips, accounting for another 2 million jobs impacted by the motorcoach industry, he said.

To make their point, independent motorcoach companies will be converging on Washington, D.C., May 13 for “Motorcoaches Rolling for Awareness Day,” to promote the economic impact of their industry. Decorated buses from all 50 states will drive into D.C. to participate. Even Hawaii will be represented, Pantuso said.

The American Bus Association and other partners in the industry have been advocating for the funds with members of Congress and Pantuso says he’s gaining support as more legislators become aware of the situation.

Meanwhile, JeBran is hoping that the diversity of Trans-Bridge may help get his buses back on the road sooner than some. Since Trans-Bridge also has a significant commuter business to destinations such as New York City, he is hoping that once workers start commuting again there will be enough of an uptick in demand for buses that he can get some vehicles and drivers back in service. But he knows that the fate of his business lies in the hands of others and decisions have not been made.

Whether theaters reopen in New York, or whether the Eagles decide to have fans in the stands in Philadelphia for the upcoming football season, will impact the number of charters Trans-Bridge will offer. So he has to wait and see what the rest of 2020 will bring for his business.