BETHLEHEM, Pa. (WLVT) - Buses sit in the parking lot of Trans-Bridge Lines, Inc., waiting to get back on the road. COVID-19 decimated business for the country's 3,000 private bus and motorcoach companies, as states started restricting travel just before peak travel season.
"People stopped traveling. The cancellations just started mounting," said Patricia Cowley, the executive director of both the Pennsylvania Bus Association and the Greater New Jersey Motorcoach Association.
"I don't think we were fully aware of how long this would last," added Trans-Bridge president Thomas JeBran. "We have two brand new buses that maybe saw two or three weeks of service that are just sitting here."
The family-owned business, which started in 1941, has endured tough times, JeBran said, including the impact of 9/11.
"Then, we had the shutdown of Sandy, but that was limited," he said. "We had the downturn of the economy. That was limited. We've had the [SARS] virus that came in...but that did not impact our business like this, and nobody seems to have an answer of where we're going and when we're going to come out of it."
Trans-Bridge offers bus service from the Greater Lehigh Valley to parts of New Jersey and New York City, as well as special charters and tours across the country and Canada. JeBran said the company started planning for the pandemic in January and added precautions in February, but statewide travel restrictions forced the company to cut off service to New York in late March.
"We knew we had a duty to perform the service to go to New York for those essential workers, and when we couldn't do it anymore, we were kind of defeated, because that's what we do," he said. "We provide a service for our community and the residents who live here, and it was just heartbreaking."
With major service cuts came even bigger personnel cuts. Trans-Bridge laid off 86 of its 89 drivers, while also letting go of cleaning staff and office workers.
The company set up a committee to support those who were laid off, getting them household essentials and helping pay bills. As the pandemic wore on, some employees resigned, while others retired.
"Right now, we can't guarantee them any jobs or any work. So, you can't really blame anyone for moving on," JeBran said, "but when we do come back -- and I'm sure we will -- we're gonna miss those people who are really good employees and staff members."
Across the country, 36,000 buses have been left idle, and more than 100,000 employees have been furloughed, according to the American Bus Association (ABA).
The national group estimates private buses and motorcoaches move 600 million passengers across the country every year, trailing only domestic airlines (700 million) in terms of transportation options.
Federal stimulus packages have helped airlines, Amtrak and public transit agencies, but private bus and motorcoach companies say they have been left out.
"We were deemed a non-essential service, which was a little bit head-scratching, because we do come to the aid of FEMA in recent [times] for the hurricanes, and we support and move our military," Cowley said.
"When Amtrak service breaks down, they call buses in to move the passengers. When the airlines can't come into the airport, because it's fogged in -- whether it's here at ABE or Avoca or Philadelphia -- they're calling buses in to move the passengers," JeBran said. "So, we are essential, but we don't get recognized for it."
Trans-bridge received funding from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in June, saving the company $1.1 million. JeBran said the initial conditions were to spend the money in eight weeks, so he rehired 24 drivers and restarted service to New York. However, when the money ran out in early August, he had to lay off the drivers again.
JeBran said the company is operating at a loss every day, and the PPP funding has turned into a five-year loan.
"We have loans with three banks. We're working with the banks to make payments, and they've been working with us, but we can't get out of the rent. The overhead is the overhead," he said. "We've chopped as many expenses as we can to conserve funds and to get us through the next six or seven or eight months."
"When you don't have money coming in, it's kind of hard to take on another loan," Cowley added. "It could be devastating to the company."
"We need a bridge to get us through all this, so we're able to come out on the other side and provide the service that people depend on," JeBran said.
With companies like Trans-Bridge struggling to get by, the industry is looking to Washington for relief. Congress is considering the CERTS Act, which would provide much-needed funding if approved.
In May, private buses and motorcoaches drove to D.C., hoping to send a message to lawmakers. The CERTS Act would provide $10 billion in grants for emergency relief when it comes to transportation.
Trans-bridge was part of the Washington bus rally. JeBran said he’s hopeful the legislation goes straight to helping companies like his.
"We do know if they do make direct help available for the bus industry, the private motorcoach industry that we'll get something that helps us move our company to the future," he said.
"It would give us the funds needed to pay for those fixed costs that they must pay every month and also support additional funding for them to get through this time," Cowley said, "so, we're there when America needs us again."
"We don't come to the Hill very often with our hand out, but we are asking for everyone's support now in the government to pass legislation to give us that relief," Cowley said.
As Trans-Bridge waits for Congress to vote, the company has focused on what it can control. Hand sanitizers and wipes are on every bus, and an electrostatic sprayer cleans the fleet. Passengers must wear masks, and the company has a new filtration system.
"The air is exchanged in the cabin every 10 minutes. The driver has his own airflow and own filter system," JeBran said. "So, we're constantly turning over the air on the bus."
"[It's] more investment when less dollars are coming in, but it's necessary to get the confidence back of the passengers," Cowley said.
Currently, 44 of Trans-Bridge’s 69 buses aren’t running. The company isn’t limiting capacity on buses, but they’re only averaging 50 percent at this point.
"We're not going to be operating anywhere near capacity for at least 8 to 12 months," JeBran said, "and even at that point, we're not sure where it's going to go."
While some operators have found work partnering with public transit and school buses, JeBran said he worries about the long-term impact of the pandemic. Service to New York is affected by restaurants, theaters and tourist attractions, many of which are still closed or heavily restricted. The company is looking into new routes for charter service in Pennsylvania, but JeBran said it won’t come close to making up the lost revenue.
"We might not look like the same company, and we might be a little smaller -- and that's okay, as long as we can provide service that is required by our community," he said.
"We are always there for America when they need us, and right now, we need the government to help us in forms of relief," Cowley said.
It’s unclear when Congress will vote on the CERTS Act. Click HERE to learn more.