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‘The forgotten industry’: Westminster business calls on Congress to provide COVID-19 relief to bus companies

Feeling like the industry she works in was forgotten in coronavirus relief packages, Lauren Grote of Rill’s Bus Service in Westminster wrote to members of Congress to ask for help.

Rill’s has been in business for 52 years and employs more than 50 people. It operates 38 school buses and five motorcoaches, all of which sat still for about four months after the pandemic hit, according to Grote.

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As tour planner and director, Grote represents the third generation of her family in the business. She also sits on the Maryland Motorcoach Association board.

Although buses aren’t prohibited from taking passengers during the pandemic, the Rill’s fleet sat idle from March 13 to July 17. No one was booking. They finally got a request, for a bus to transport a wedding party.

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Lauren Grote, right, with her mother Dianne Grote, left, and grandfather Paul Rill at Rill's Bus Service in Westminster Friday, July 24, 2020. Lauren Grote wrote to members of congress to appeal for assistance for motor coach operators impacted by the Covid-19 epidemic.
Lauren Grote, right, with her mother Dianne Grote, left, and grandfather Paul Rill at Rill's Bus Service in Westminster Friday, July 24, 2020. Lauren Grote wrote to members of congress to appeal for assistance for motor coach operators impacted by the Covid-19 epidemic. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

“If we don’t get the necessary economic relief funding very soon, there are going to be a lot of bus companies that will no longer be in operation,” Grote said.

Rill’s isn’t the only company of its kind suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The American Bus Association (ABA) recently released a report that showed 80% to 95% of motorcoach trips have been canceled or are not being booked due to the pandemic. The U.S. private motorcoach, school bus and domestic passenger vessel industries collectively employ more than 400,000 people, according to the ABA. The motorcoach industry alone provides nearly 600 million passenger trips per year.

The private bus industry has not received relief funding the airline and public transit industries have.

“I think we have just been the forgotten industry,” Grote said.

That’s why she and industry leaders like ABA are asking Congress, including those representing Maryland, to support legislation aimed at addressing that unfilled need.

The Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services Act, Senate Bill 4150, would provide $10 billion in grants and other emergency assistance to certain transportation providers, such as the bus and motorcoach industry. Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced it in the Senate on July 2.

Hoping for more support, Grote penned letters to a number of U.S. and Maryland political leaders. The most positive feedback she received was from U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat representing Maryland.

Grote sent him a letter July 3, and on July 21 he co-sponsored the CERTS Act, according to online bill records. In May, he co-authored a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, asking them to include the motorcoach industry in a future stimulus package.

“COVID-19 has hurt small businesses across our state, including many local, family-owned motorcoach companies,” Van Hollen wrote in an email Thursday. “These businesses provide crucial transportation services for both commuters and long-distance travelers, and also support Maryland and the national capital region’s tourism industry. The Congress must continue working to provide support to those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’ll be looking for ways to include this relief in the next package.”

Grote said the CERTS Act is crucial for the industry’s survival. She said any business, even one that’s been around for five decades like Rill’s, will struggle to survive after four months without work.

“I want to continue my grandparents’ legacy,” she said, her voice breaking. “I take great pride in the fact that they have built up their business all of these years.”

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Even when buses sit idle, there are still ongoing costs like insurance and maintenance. When they do get work, Grote said, they limit the number of passengers to allow for social distancing and spend more money on cleaning and personal protective equipment, which means less revenue.

She fondly recounted times when Rill’s was busy transporting children to summer camp, taking guests safely home from weddings, driving older adults from the local senior centers and bringing churchgoers to new places.

Grote wants Rill’s to be there when passengers need a ride again.

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