Struggling private bus, motorcoach and other transportation companies can finally apply for grants from a $2 billion fund Congress approved six months ago.

Some local bus company owners say the grants are welcome but may not be enough to resuscitate an industry that is still in the early stages of recovery compared to other parts of the economy.

Northeast Charter and Tour Co. expects this year to have half the business it would have had before the pandemic, said Scott Riccio, owner of the Lewiston bus company. Spring school trips never materialized, summer camps aren’t planning big outings and cruise ships, whose passengers in autumn help round out the year, aren’t scheduling stops. Intermittent bookings for weddings or group travel fill the gap, but don’t bring in enough to get his company up to full strength.

“We will run below 50 percent this year, but we should be running 90-100 percent,” Riccio said. “This industry is not out of the woods in this country, I can tell you that.”

Just half his fleet – 13 buses – will be on the road for the rest of 2021 and Riccio is again planning how to make it through another lean winter.

“We are one of the last industries to get up and going, it is a lack of customers that for a variety of reasons are affecting the spring, summer and fall seasons,” Riccio said. “Everything we are dealing with is because of the pandemic and that is what we are trying to get our state and federal officials to recognize.”

Maine’s four motorcoach companies have survived so far, but the American Bus Association estimates 25 percent of U.S. bus companies, about 800, have gone out of business since the start of the pandemic.

The Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services grant program was established to help the bus, motorcoach, ferry and vessel industries. Although part of a $900 billion coronavirus relief act Congress passed in December, businesses could not apply for grants until late last week.

Treasury will accept applications until July 19. Grant awards from the $2 billion pool will be calculated based on a formula to assess need after all applications are processed. It is the only dedicated funding the industry has received, although companies were eligible for Paycheck Protection Program loans and other state and federal aid. There are about 3,000 U.S. bus companies.

Applicants must demonstrate annual revenue losses of at least 25 percent because of COVID-19 and meet other requirements. If they secure a grant, at least 60 percent has to go to employee pay.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a co-author of the relief measure, pushed to have the money distributed in February, and again in May. Last week, Collins asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to get the money distributed.

“Virtually every major source of business and revenue for bus companies, including school- and sports-related travel, tourism, public events, weddings, you name it, has been severely restricted or eliminated over the past 14 months,” Collins said.

Intercity bus companies, such as Concord Coach Lines, struggle with low ridership even as U.S. travel rebounds. About 1,900 passengers took inbound buses to Maine during a one-week period two weeks ago, 72 percent below the same period in 2019, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.

“Concord Coach Lines is grateful for the critical support we received on the state level, especially since our industry was devastated almost immediately by the pandemic since its earliest days,” said Benjamin Blunt, Concord Coach vice president. The company carried more than 640,000 passengers in Maine two years ago. Industry forecasts predict intercity bus travel won’t fully recover for another two years, Blunt added.

“While our industry is grateful for this funding by the federal government, bus companies are still reeling economically, so we’re hopeful more funding is on the horizon,” he said.

Like other owners, Gregg Isherwood expects another slow year. About half the buses for Custom Charter and Limousine, his Gorham company, have been parked in the same spot in his lot since the shutdown began in March 2020.

Now, with so little revenue coming in, Isherwood said he can’t afford the local tax he must pay to register his newest buses. Even if he could get on the road, so few drivers are available it would be another expensive struggle to hire enough staff, he said.

The grant money will help, but Isherwood has no idea how much he will receive or when it will arrive. At the same time, bank loan payments deferred for more than a year will restart in a few months, he added. Isherwood said last year his company took in $1.2 million, a fifth of its normal revenue.

“My business is worth next to nothing,” Isherwood said. “It’s a reminder that not everyone is back yet. We’re creeping in that direction, but it might be a little too little too late.”

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