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Still struggling motor coach industry seeks more federal aid

Early estimates are that the industry in 2021 was about half of what it was in 2019

Supporters wave signs as motorcoach buses pass by the U.S. Capitol during a 2020 rolling rally on federal assistance for the bus industry.
Supporters wave signs as motorcoach buses pass by the U.S. Capitol during a 2020 rolling rally on federal assistance for the bus industry. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The motor coach industry, which saw a smaller slice of COVID-19 relief than other transportation modes, says it is still struggling to return to pre-pandemic ridership and needs more federal help.

But some segments of the industry appear to be recovering faster than others.

While the American Bus Association Foundation said in a report released Monday its members saw a 76.7 percent decline in passenger trips during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a second study by DePaul University strikes a more hopeful tone, predicting a sustained recovery through the summer for the intercity bus segment of the industry, assuming no major shifts in the pandemic.

The ABA Foundation survey, which tracked the decline in commuter, charter and intercity bus service between 2019 and 2020, found that the 535 million passenger trips made by the industry in 2019 fell to 124 million in 2020. Industry employment, meanwhile, fell from 80,000 in 2019 to 49,500 in 2020.

The numbers are two years old because it took that long to track down the fates of many of the companies involved in the survey. While some shut their doors temporarily, others went out of business entirely, said Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association Foundation.

The rebound is slow-going, he said in an interview: “I can tell you in 2021, it wasn’t a lot better than 2020.”

Early estimates are that the industry in 2021 was about half of what it was in 2019, according to Pantuso. This year may be “a little better,” but there’s still “a long, long way to go,” Pantuso said.

“People aren’t back in their offices yet,” he said. “And until that happens, those numbers for commuters are going to be slow.”

The industry, which received a portion of $2 billion split between intercity bus carriers, school bus companies and passenger vessels through the 2021 omnibus bill, is seeking more relief.

Small-business help

Pantuso said while it hopes to get dollars in the upcoming omnibus bill, it’s more likely the industry will see provisions in legislation to be considered by the Senate Small Business Committee targeted at businesses still recovering from the pandemic.

The ABA says its survey found U.S. and Canadian motor coach companies saw a 23.7 percent loss from 2019, ending 2020 with 1,873 companies operating 30,860 motor coaches. In the U.S. the 2,111 motor coach companies operating in 2019 fell to 1,717 in 2020.

The study, which involved a survey of companies combined with data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, among other sources, was conducted by John Dunham and Associates. The ABA Foundation is the research arm of the motor coach lobbying group.

Still, those estimates are more positive than the organization’s original predictions: The group predicted in September 2020 that 40 percent of its member companies could be out of business by year’s end.

The steep losses were also reported in the 2021 study by DePaul University in Chicago, which found a 22 to 25 percent decline in bookings in December 2020 compared to 2019, with the Northeast U.S. the epicenter of the drop.

But the university struck a more hopeful note in a February 2022 policy brief, finding that though the intercity bus industry has rebounded more slowly than Amtrak and airlines, and the omicron variant sent a fledgling recovery into reverse last December, “we believe midsize to large bus lines on non-commuter routes are now carrying perhaps 60-70 percent of pre-pandemic passenger volumes, albeit during a traditionally slow travel period.”

Pantuso said while the 2020 ABA census examined a variety of segments of the bus industry including commuter, scheduled and charter buses, the DePaul study looked only at the scheduled, intercity bus service, which “is typically the one that rebounds a little quicker.”

The motor coach industry, known for moving tourists and commuters, is also used to transport sports teams, National Guard units and evacuees escaping natural disasters.

Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst with the libertarian Reason Foundation, cautioned against more aid for the troubled industry.

“Congress should reject any additional COVID transportation sector bailouts to avoid worsening the sectoral distortions they’ve already caused through their irresponsible fiscal reactions to the pandemic,” Scribner said. He said Congress should instead “focus on eliminating regulatory barriers to commerce and competition to allow for a robust market-driven recovery of the transportation sector.”

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