Covid Relief Could Leave Bus Companies Behind
February 23, 2021
The $1.9 trillion pandemic relief proposal that Democrats are pushing through Congress would touch many parts of the U.S. economy hurt by Covid-19, including those that move it. It proposes $30 billion in relief for public transit agencies, $1.5 billion for Amtrak, $8 billion for airports and $15 billion for airline workers — all on top of tens of billions of dollars of industry aid that the last two pandemic relief packages included.
But one transportation sector is almost entirely left off the American Rescue Plan Act’s life raft: the motorcoach business. Along with the Greyhound and Peter Pan buses that are familiar sights on U.S. interstates, the industry encompasses nearly 3,000 carriers that provide charter trips, sightseeing tours, scheduled commuter stops, intercity connections and other varieties of bus-based travel. Before Covid-19, these buses carried 575 million passengers annually, pulling in $15.4 billion in revenue, according to data from the American Bus Association. With office workers hunkered down at home, tourism on ice and infection fears pushing travelers away from shared modes, private bus businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic, with an estimated 83% of the industry’s 88,800 full-time workers unemployed. But they have received little attention from lawmakers to date.
The latest proposal for relief by House Democrats does include $100 million for rural intercity bus services that already receive subsidies. Offered by fewer than 150 operators in a handful of states, that program is one of the few parts of the industry that regularly rely on federal grants. Other than the Greyhound buses that operate as Amtrak connectors in a few states, the vast remainder of operators are fully privately operated, with little historic cause to lobby lawmakers for funds.
That may be part of the reason the industry has been ignored in relief bills, said Peter J. Pantuso, the president and CEO of the American Bus Association, despite the roles it plays.
“We pick up Amtrak travelers. When planes don’t fly, it’s us that steps in to move people. We had buses bringing in National Guard troops to the Capitol for Inauguration,” he said. “We are a part of the network that people typically forget about because we’re not constantly looking for a handout like every other government-subsidized system.”
Pantuso and Schwieterman expect that the industry will see a partial rebound when the rest of the economy does, perhaps as soon as this summer, as vaccine rollouts allow more business and leisure travel to resume.
But many small operators may not be able to last even that long. As many as 800 have already closed their doors in the past year, Pantuso said. Other pandemic-era changes rippling through the economy — such as a number of large employers announcing permanent work-from-home policies — add further uncertainties. So far, the message from Congress is not encouraging.