Before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in March 2020, Rochester City Lines, a family-owned Minnesota commuter and charter bus company, was booming.
“We were set for our best year ever for 2020,” said Christian Holter, the company’s operations manager. “And then the wheels fell off.”
Half of the company’s business came from commuters on its dozens of fixed routes. Many worked at the massive Mayo Clinic medical complex in Rochester and commuted from areas in southeast Minnesota and the Twin Cities area.
The company lost a large chunk of its commuters when Mayo allowed many employees to work remotely, Holter said. The rest of Rochester City Lines’ business, which came mostly from charter flights for high school and college track teams and for company outings, also slumped.
In 2020, the company’s revenue fell 93 percent, Holter said.
Like Rochester City Lines, many private bus companies across the US have faced serious difficulties during the pandemic. It didn’t matter whether they ran scheduled services from city to city, transported commuters or operated charter and sightseeing tours.
Across the country, many people who do not have cars or do not drive, especially students or those of limited means, rely on intercity buses. If these routes are clipped or eliminated, they can be left in the lurch.
Transport experts consider intercity services to be essential infrastructure. Often they operate in areas where there may not be alternative transportation options.
And in many small towns, local charter bus companies serve school groups, older adult clubs, and other community organizations. Without them, residents may have few options when planning sporting events, church retreats, or sightseeing.
The pandemic took a heavy toll on the bus industry.
Riders disappeared. Employees worked from home. Schools taught students remotely, so there were no field trips or sporting events.
Bus companies reduced their services, canceled routes and laid off workers. Buses stopped. Despite $1 billion in government aid, many businesses, particularly those operating charter companies, failed to survive and closed.
As of December 2019, there were 3,878 tour bus companies in the United States, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. At the end of February it was 1,940.
Many of the companies that are shutting down are struggling with a huge drop in ridership and large losses in revenue, industry officials say.
“It was devastating. Restaurants and hotels appear to be back. The airlines are all busy. We’re still a long way behind compared to other modes of transportation and the travel industry,” said Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, an industry association.
It’s particularly problematic for commuter bus lines, which relied on drivers living in suburbs or small towns and commuting by bus to work in larger cities, Pantuso said.
According to Pantuso’s group, commuter bus ridership is only 20 to 25 percent of what it was before the pandemic.
“In many large urban areas, commuters are no longer coming back,” he said. “They work remotely or drive because they don’t feel comfortable on the bus or subway.”
Charter bus companies are doing better but still have about 60% occupancy, Pantuso said.
In Washington, DC, for example, where about 1,000 buses a day would normally arrive with students from across the country for field trips in the spring, his group estimates that there will only be about 500 a day this year.
Intercity bus companies that haul passengers from city to city are also suffering.
According to a recent report by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, an urban transit think tank, ridership on intercity bus routes across the country was an estimated 60 percent at the end of February compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
“Commercial intercity bus routes have gone through hell in a hand basket because of the pandemic,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a professor in DePaul University’s School of Public Service in Chicago and director of the Chaddick Institute. “Morale has suffered. Equipment stopped. The employees switched to other jobs. It was a very tough time.
“Now it’s a catch-up game if they’re still there,” he added. “Many are severely scaled down and have trouble booting up.”
Bus companies are also struggling with a major shortage of bus drivers, with many unemployed drivers finding other jobs, such as driving, during the pandemic.
“In our industry, the driver shortage is almost as bad as the pandemic,” Pantuso said.
According to Pantuso’s Association, the number of bus drivers nationwide fell by an estimated 62 percent between February 2020 and December 2021.
In contrast to private intercity and charter bus companies, most publicly funded rural bus services have fared slightly better during the pandemic, Schwieterman said. These routes in rural communities have largely survived because the companies that operate them receive funding from state governments and the U.S. Department of Transportation, he added.
Many intercity and charter bus companies have managed to stay afloat with help from Congress. Some relied on money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to keep employees employed, at least for a time. And in late 2020, Congress approved a $2 billion grant program for tour bus, school bus and passenger ship operators under its Pandemic Assistance Act. The coach industry received a billion dollars from this.
“We were grateful to get something at that point,” Pantuso said. “It was a thin lifeline for some companies.”
But it wasn’t nearly enough, he added. His association hopes Congress will authorize an additional $2 billion for the three industries through an amendment supporting a major COVID-19 relief bill by US Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, and Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican , was added. The bill is being considered in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Pantuso said the recovery has been fairly slow. He doesn’t see his industry returning until late 2023 or early 2024.
“At $4 a gallon gas price, you would expect the industry to explode,” he said. “We don’t see that. People just don’t drive that much.”
Schwieterman said he believes the number of intercity bus drivers will continue to rise this summer and predicts it will reach 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels in 2023, spurred by the rise in gasoline prices motorists are facing become.
As for commuter bus routes, particularly those that involve long distance, that’s a different story.
“The daily commuter market may never fully return. This market is constantly changing,” he said, noting that he hopes it will eventually reach three-quarters of pre-pandemic levels in the next few years.
Charter business has been making a gradual comeback for Rochester City Lines over the past eight months, Holter said. But the commuter service that stopped in April 2020 is unlikely to return.
The small business, founded by his grandparents in 1966, has been able to keep operating during the pandemic, Holter said, because lenders have been generous in deferring business loan payments and because of federal assistance programs.
“These programs are why the doors are still open,” he said. “It was a brutal thing to go through.”
And as the company builds its charter business, total revenue is still down about 50% compared to pre-pandemic numbers, according to Holter.
He said the company is still getting inquiries from former drivers asking if commuter service will return.
“I’m sorry to say that so much has changed that getting the service back on the road would be a real challenge,” he said.
Story by Jenni Bergal for state borderan initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts