Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, Rochester City Lines, a family-owned commuter and charter bus company in Minnesota, was riding high.
“We were set for our best year ever in 2020,” said Christian Holter, the company’s director of operations. “And then the wheels fell off.”
Half of the company’s business had come from commuters on its dozen fixed routes. Many worked at the giant Mayo Clinic medical complex in Rochester and commuted from areas in southeast Minnesota and the Twin Cities region.
The company lost a huge chunk of its commuters when Mayo allowed many staffers to work remotely, Holter said. The rest of Rochester City Lines’ business, which came mainly from charters booked by high school and college athletics teams and for corporate outings, dried up as well.
In 2020, the company’s revenues dropped 93 percent, Holter said.
Like Rochester City Lines, many private bus companies across the U.S. have faced serious hardships during the pandemic. It didn’t matter whether they ran scheduled routes from city to city, transported commuters or provided charters and tours.
Throughout the country, many people who don’t have cars or don’t drive, especially students or people with limited means, rely on intercity buses. If those routes are cut or eliminated, they may be left in the lurch.
Transportation experts consider intercity services essential infrastructure. Often, they operate in areas where there may be no alternative transportation.
And in many small towns, local charter bus operators serve school groups, clubs for older adults and other community organizations. Without them, residents may have few options if they want to plan for sporting events, church retreats or sightseeing trips.
The pandemic took a heavy toll on the bus industry.
Riders disappeared. White-collar employees worked from home. Schools taught students remotely, so there were no field trips or sports events.
Bus companies slashed services, eliminated routes and laid off workers. Buses sat idle. Despite $1 billion in federal aid, many companies, particularly those that ran charters, couldn’t make it and shut down.
In December 2019, there were 3,878 motorcoach carriers in the U.S., according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. As of late February, there were 1,940.
Many of the companies that remain still are struggling to deal with a huge drop in ridership and big revenue losses, industry officials say.
“It’s been devastating. Restaurants and hotels seem to be back. Airlines are all busy. Compared to other transportation modes and the travel industry, we are still way, way behind,” said Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, an industry trade group.
It’s particularly problematic for commuter bus lines, which relied on riders who lived in suburbs or small towns and rode the bus to work at bigger cities, Pantuso said.
Commuter bus ridership is only 20 percent to 25 percent of what it was before the pandemic, according to Pantuso’s group.
“In a lot of major urban areas, commuters aren’t coming back,” he said. “They’re teleworking or they’re driving because they don’t feel comfortable on a bus or metro.”
Charter bus companies are faring better, but still are operating at about 60% of capacity, Pantuso said.
In Washington, D.C., for example, where about 1,000 buses a day filled with students from across the country normally would be arriving for spring field trips, his group estimates there will be only about 500 a day this year.
And intercity bus companies, which transport riders from city to city, also are hurting.
As of late February, ridership on intercity bus lines nationwide was an estimated 60 percent compared with pre-pandemic numbers, according to a recent report by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, an urban transportation think tank.
“Commercial intercity bus lines went through hell in a handbasket because of the pandemic,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at the School of Public Service at DePaul University in Chicago and director of the Chaddick Institute. “Morale tanked. Equipment sat idle. Employees pivoted to other jobs. It’s been a very tough time.
“Now it’s a game of catchup, if they’re still around,” he added. “Many are greatly downsized and are having a hard time ramping up.”
Bus companies also are dealing with a major bus driver shortage, as many out-of-work drivers moved to other jobs, such as trucking, during the pandemic.
“In our industry, the driver shortage situation is almost as bad as the pandemic,” Pantuso said.
The number of motorcoach drivers nationwide fell an estimated 62 percent between February 2020 and December 2021, according to Pantuso’s association.
Unlike private intercity and charter bus companies, most publicly funded rural bus services have fared somewhat better during the pandemic, Schwieterman said. Those routes in rural communities largely have been preserved because the companies that run them receive funding through state governments and the U.S. Department of Transportation, he added.
Many intercity and charter bus companies have managed to stay afloat with help they got from Congress. Some relied on federal Paycheck Protection Program money to help keep staffers employed, at least for a time. And in late 2020, as part of its pandemic relief bill, Congress approved a $2 billion grant program for motorcoach, school bus and passenger vessel operators. The motorcoach industry got $1 billion of that.
“We were grateful to get anything at that point,” Pantuso said. “For some companies, it was a thin lifeline.”
But it hasn’t been nearly enough, he added. His association is hoping Congress will authorize another $2 billion for the three industries through an amendment added to a larger COVID-19 aid bill by U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, and Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican. The bill is under consideration in the Senate.
In the meantime, Pantuso said recovery has been fairly slow. He doesn’t see his industry coming back until late 2023 or early 2024.
“With gas at $4 a gallon, you’d expect the industry to be exploding,” he said. “We’re not seeing that happen. People just aren’t riding as much.”
Schwieterman said he thinks intercity bus ridership will keep growing this summer and predicts it will reach 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels in 2023, spurred by the surge in gasoline prices motorists are facing.
As for commuter bus lines, particularly those that involve a long distance, that’s a different story.
“The daily commuting market may never fully return. That market is permanently changed,” he said, noting that he hopes it eventually reaches three-quarters of pre-pandemic levels over the next few years.
For Rochester City Lines, charter business has gradually been making a comeback in the last eight months, Holter said. But commuter service, which was suspended in April 2020, probably will not return.
The small business, which was started by his grandparents in 1966, has been able to remain in operation during the pandemic, Holter said, because lenders were generous about deferring payment on business loans and because of federal assistance programs.
“Those programs are why the doors are still open,” he said. “It’s been a brutal thing to go through.”
And while the company is building up its charter business, total revenue is still down about 50% compared with pre-pandemic numbers, according to Holter.
He said the company still gets inquiries from former riders asking if commuter service will be coming back.
“I’m sorry to say that there’s enough that’s changed that it would be really challenging to put service back on the road,” he said.
Story by Jenni Bergal for Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts