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Struggling private bus company employees feel left behind by federal aid

by Phillip Sitter | June 18, 2020 at 5:05 a.m. | Updated June 18, 2020 at 11:47 a.m.
Almost 20 busses round the Missouri state Capitol on Wednesday to bring awareness to bus companies being left out of the CARES Act.

A convoy of motor coaches that made its way across Jefferson City to the Missouri state Capitol on Wednesday sought to bring awareness to a wider issue - private bus companies left behind by emergency federal pandemic aid funding.

"We don't have a voice in the (U.S.) House or Senate," unlike airlines and public transit authorities, said Phil Streif, operations manager of Vandalia Bus Lines.

Vandalia was among more than a dozen bus companies that brought 17 buses to Jefferson City on Wednesday.

"Almost every operator from Missouri is here," Streif said.

Ever since shutdowns and event cancellations in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the companies' revenue has almost completely stopped coming in; but expenses such as payments on bus leases, insurance and property rent have not stopped having to go out.

Streif said the goal of Wednesday's protest was to get the industry at least $15 billion of funding in another federal stimulus package - $10 billion in grants and $5 billion in low-interest loans.

A representative of U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's office who listened to bus company owners' and drivers' concerns outside the Capitol could not immediately comment on the mood in Washington, D.C., regarding another federal aid package akin to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

The mood at bus company offices across the state and the nation is surely one of nervousness.

Huskey Trailways President Julie Huskey said her company has lost approximately 90 percent of its revenue.

"I don't look, because it scares me," she said.

Businesses and other activities are opening or resuming as health restrictions ease, but "we have nothing to sell but our service," Huskey said.

In other words, while a restaurant or retail store can somewhat adapt to social distancing, for bus companies, it's more of an all-or-nothing situation.

Until schools and colleges are in session and sending teams to competitions or students on field trips, or conventions and other large events start to resume, and large groups of people need rides to and from airports to hotels and other venues, there just won't be much revenue for bus companies - except for maybe taking members of the military to and from airports to bases such as Fort Leonard Wood, as Huskey said her company does.

Even if or when public events and excursions start again this year, customers will need the confidence to ride buses, which may not return until a vaccine for COVID-19 is widely available - no matter how much bus companies disinfect their motor coaches in the meantime.

"We're going to need a much longer runway of assistance," Destination St. Louis Owner Angie Weigel said.

Weigel's company is not a motor coach operator, but she depends on the people that operators bring in for tours and other events she provides guides and logistics for. "We're sort of dead in the water," she said.

Meanwhile, bus companies' employees are not being paid and have been furloughed. Federal paycheck protection helped, but it only lasted for a few weeks, and once it was over, bus companies couldn't just reopen like other businesses.

Nationwide, 100,000 people are employed by the private bus industry, and the industry brings in $236 billion for the United States, including $8 billion for Missouri, Streif said.

Streif said there are also broader implications of the financial viability of private bus companies, beyond the tourism and travel industries - such as assistance during mass evacuations in hurricane season.

"We're vital parts of getting that help to FEMA," Streif said of companies even as far north as Missouri sending buses south to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency get people out of harm's way from storms such as Katrina and Harvey.

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