The pandemic has revealed how little many members of Congress understand about the crucial role the bus and motorcoach industry plays in the nation’s transportation infrastructure. That lack of understanding is what drove the efforts of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to lift the curtain on their important role in moving people during good times and bad.
A champion of the industry, she led the effort to address the error made in previous stimulus bills for transportation — including the CARES Act— which didn’t include the motorcoach, school bus or passenger vessel industries when it was passed in March. In late June, she and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., introduced the Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services (CERTS) Act to provide $10 billion in grants, loans and loan guarantees to those three industries.
“It just wasn’t fair to have the bus and motorcoach companies left out when their businesses have been devastated by the pandemic,” said Collins. “They are the unsung heroes of the transportation industry. When people look at the transportation sector, they may think of buses that are city-owned buses for mass transit, but they forget the number of privately owned bus and motorcoach companies that are transporting teens from schools to games and are essential to our tourism industry.”
In Maine, she has watched as the closure of many summer camps and the loss of destination weddings and tour groups have been difficult blows for the industry to absorb. These same companies provide critical transportation services between towns. For some residents, from seniors to college students, buses can be one of their few ways of getting to those towns.
Buses are also dispatched first during natural disasters, such as hurricanes, to quickly evacuate people to safety.
“They are really an essential element of our transportation network, yet they do not get the attention and the assistance that other parts of the sector routinely get whenever there is a crisis, such as this pandemic,” Collins said.
Across the aisle
Understanding this is a non-partisan issue, she worked across the aisle to build a coalition of support. More than 60 senators — and more than 200 U.S. representatives — signed on, marking the largest number of co-sponsors on any proposed relief bill.
“I give credit to the motorcoach industry for reaching out and educating members of the Senate about the need here,” Collins said. “Until I introduced the bill and started focusing my colleagues’ attention on this issue, there really wasn’t much discussion about the motorcoach industry.”
Collins says the lack of understanding of the critical role the industry plays in the transportation industry was troubling. She said part of the problem is that states with very large cities tend to have senators who are focused on mass transit. Many leaders didn’t realize how smaller communities and educational systems depend on motorcoach operators to provide transportation for students to school, field trips or sports events.
“If you look at the needs of our country, buses play a role everywhere, but in rural states, they’re absolutely vital,” Collins said.
Collins’ determination to get the approval for the CERTS Act became a Herculean effort in the final days to approve a stimulus package. As part of a bipartisan group of Senate and House members, she served as the lead on the transportation section of the bill, along with Mark Warner, of Virginia. As a result of Senator Collins’ leadership, funding was included for the CERTS Act in the transportation section, as well as the much-needed assistance for airlines, mass transit and airports. In the final negotiations, funding was reduced to $2 billion.”
Compared to other businesses like the airlines that have enormous lobbying and public relations budgets, the bus and motorcoach industry has an uphill battle getting noticed in Washington. That makes it even more important for members of Congress to hear personally from the owners and employees of bus and motorcoach companies. Lawmakers needed help to learn about the consequences of early school closures, loss of tourism business, cancellation of athletics and vastly decreased numbers of travelers taking buses.
“Those points hit home when a member hears how it affects his or her state. No matter how good your lobbyists are … nothing can beat hearing from your constituents,” Collins said.
She believes the grassroots lobbying by the industry was crucial to receiving the $2 billion.
Collins understands personally the importance of how buses connect people, probably better than most modes of transportation.
Her “All of Maine” bus tour has been a cornerstone of her successful reelection campaign. In her recent bid for a fifth term, she prevailed against a reported deluge of out-of-state funding for her opponent. She was outspent by more than 4 to 1.
Collins’ campaign logged more than 6,500 miles, stopping in 80 different communities in all of Maine’s 16 counties.
“We truly covered the state. It enabled me to meet personally — carefully, because we all had to wear masks — with hundreds of Mainers at their jobs, on Main Streets in their communities, in just a few weeks’ time,” Collins said. “This is something I’ve always done. I love the grassroots nature of it.”