Maine’s charter bus companies say they are on the brink of collapse and in dire need of a federal bailout that remains uncertain.

In a typical year, charter buses would be busy with tourists, cruise ship passengers, weddings and college sporting events. This year, that business has disappeared. The state’s four charter bus companies are left operating on shoestring budgets and competing for the few available jobs.

“We are all going to be down 80 percent of our revenue compared to last year,” said Gregg Isherwood, owner of Custom Coach and Limousine in Gorham. Isherwood furloughed more than 40 employees and took all but five of his 45 vehicles out of service.

Shop manager Michael Soucie at Custom Coach and Limousine in Gorham on Wednesday. Soucie, who has worked there for 12 years, had been working only one day a week since the coronavirus hit. He just came back to full time two weeks ago. Owner Greg Isherwood said they only have three vehicles moving one day a week. Soucie said they had to lay off almost all of the other mechanics, bus drivers and cleaners. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Right now, he’s limping along with a military contract and a charter to shuttle college students to campus from their hotel housing.

“Those are all contingent – one outbreak of COVID and they’ll be shut down,” he said. “We are walking a tightrope.”

Nationally, nearly 3,000 charter bus companies are struggling to survive with almost no demand for their services. The American Bus Association estimates the $15 billion industry is operating at just 15 percent of its capacity. Tens of thousands of employees have been furloughed or laid off – the association reported in March that as many as 78 percent of motor coach jobs could be lost permanently.

In Maine, motor coach companies have little margin for error in good times. The charter season typically lasts from late spring through October, allowing operators to earn just enough money to pay the bills through the lean winter.

Scott Riccio said his company, Northeast Charter Tours, shut down in mid-March and went three and a half months months without a job. He received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but when that ran out, he furloughed nearly 100 employees and took about half his coaches off the road.

This week, Riccio had a charter for two buses. His next job is this weekend, when just one bus will be on the road.

“I have no use for them; I’m going to park them,” Riccio said. “The demand is not there. We are basically a 10-person company right now.”

Michael Soucie walks back to the mechanic shop through the lot filled with unused buses at Custom Coach and Limousine in Gorham on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The earliest that business could revive is next spring, Riccio said. That puts the company in an untenable position. Before the pandemic, it was clamoring for qualified drivers to keep up with growing demand. Now Riccio is worried that his drivers, whose unemployment benefits decreased this month after a $600-per-week federal enhancement expired, will start looking for new jobs, leaving him without the skilled workforce he’ll need to restart operations.

Moreover, in a capital-intensive industry in which new buses cost up to $500,000 and regulations are tight, just shutting down the business and going into hibernation until things get better isn’t an option, Riccio said. Instead, he’s done everything he can to limit costs, including keeping some lights off in the company’s Lewiston headquarters and garages.

“This isn’t a ‘flip the switch’ kind of industry,” he said. “We could very well shut it down, but the reality is it would make things even worse.”

A temporary shutdown would not likely sit well with his bank, which has deferred loan payments to help the company get through.

“There is an option to give up, and we don’t want to do that,” Riccio said. “We want to be here when it is over and get back to business.”

There is no guarantee that federal aid for the beleaguered industry is forthcoming, despite support in Congress for a bailout package. Sens. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced a bill that would deliver $10 billion in grants and $5 billion in loans to help motor coach, intercity bus and other transportation providers. Representatives in the U.S. House introduced an identical bill in July.

But it is unclear whether the proposal will be included in a future federal relief package. The bill was not included in a Senate aid package announced in late July, but a spokesperson for Collins said she continues to fight for it in negotiations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, adjourned the Senate last week until Sept. 8 without voting on further relief.


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