In many ways, the issues facing the United Motorcoach Association (UMA) in 2021 — with the exception of the COVID-19 pandemic — are similar to the ones it dealt with when it was created 50 years ago as the United Bus Owners Association (UBOA).
In 1971, the founders of UBOA were seeking a voice among state and federal lawmakers in an effort to emerge from the shadow of large national and regional bus companies that dominated the industry.
While it is difficult to imagine today, before 1982 entrepreneurs desiring to enter the bus business or expand an existing business were required to obtain permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission along with state Public Utility or Public Service Commissions, according to Ken Presley, UMA’s vice president of industry relations and chief operating officer.
These agencies would hold public hearings and an applicant was compelled to “prove” there was a need for granting their business “authority.” In nearly every case, prospective competitors would publicly oppose the governments’ granting the authority on the basis there was insufficient demand, and it would economically harm existing passenger carriers, Presley said. The era was known as “economic regulation.”
“The battles today are similar to when the association was founded; it can be difficult to enter the business and grow their service. In those days the big guys used the system to suppress their prospective competition,” said Presley. “Today, faux economic regulations often show up disguised as ‘safety’ regulations and enforcement. While often introduced and supported by larger fleet operators, regulations and subsequent enforcement are borne disproportionately by smaller fleet operators. In the end, UMA is rooted in the freedom to do business with a minimum of regulations. What attracts people to UMA now is, in essence, the same as what they were doing in 1971. Regulations should be kept to a minimum and grounded in sound science and never used to discourage new entrants or expansions of service.”
While the basic goals of the association — industry growth and fighting regulatory overreach — have remained constant over the years, UMA began broadening its focus in the late 1990s and 2000s. When founding Executive Director Wayne Smith left UMA in 1998 and Victor Parra was hired as president and CEO, the association began focusing more on such issues as safety and education.
There also was a shift in attitude toward the American Bus Association, which was known to represent major national bus companies such as Greyhound and Trailways. ABA’s support of large companies at the expense of small operators had been the catalyst for the founding of UBOA.
But under Parra, there was an attempt to merge the two associations to form a larger organization. Such plans evaporated in the mid-2000s when ABA retreated and ended the unification process. Shortly thereafter it was revealed ABA and the American Public Transit Association “essentially came to an agreement that public transit could do local charter work unfettered,” Presley said.
“That would have wiped out the small guys,” he said. “Operators were outraged.”
The Charter Service Rule
The outrage eventually led to Congress stepping in and mandating a new process referred to as negotiated rulemaking between representatives of the motorcoach and transit industries. In 2008, after nearly a year of negotiations, the revised federal Charter Service Rule was adopted to place stricter limits on the types of charters public transit agencies are allowed to perform using taxpayer-funded buses.
Under the rule, transit agencies that receive a request to operate a charter service are required to promptly notify registered private operators they intend to perform a charter unless the private operators express a desire for the business opportunity. If a private carrier wants to handle the job, the transit agency must step aside immediately. If no private carriers express interest, the transit agency is free to take the charter.
“For the most part, the rule remains very effective,” Presley said, although over the years transit agencies have sometimes skirted the regulation, sometimes resulting in the transit being fined.
Active in legislative arena
Most recently, UMA has been fighting a number of issues that could hamper the industry, including proposals to significantly increase insurance liability limits, efforts to impose strict regulations on operators entering the industry, increased regulation of the industry by cities and states, and a variety of proposed federal regulations, including restrictions on vehicle leasing agreements between operators and changes in the way federal safety ratings are determined.
That has resulted in UMA becoming more active in the legislative arena. The association hired Presley, who had been working in the motorcoach insurance industry, in 2006 to head up its government relations activities. It also brought in the Prime Policy Group and Becky Weber to handle congressional lobbying for UMA.
The association launched the annual UMA Legislative Fly-In, during which UMA members descend on Washington, D.C., to meet with their congressional representatives and their staff to discuss issues important to the motorcoach industry. The UMA Fly-In has become one of the more popular UMA events, attracting more than 100 members and greatly increasing UMA’s presence on Capitol Hill. That presence proved instrumental in the successful push for CERTS Act pandemic funding for the industry.
Education also has been a longtime focus for UMA, with educational sessions becoming a dominant — and popular — feature of the annual Motorcoach EXPO. The association also offers the annual UMA Safety Management Seminar, and the two-year old UMA Sales Summit.
But the pandemic has forced UMA to rethink much of what it was doing and shift its focus to helping operators survive the almost total shutdown of the motorcoach industry in place since March 2020 while at the same time remaining vigilant for the eventual recovery.
Change in leadership
At the time, UMA was undergoing a change in leadership. Jeff Polzien took over as chairman of the UMA board in January 2020. Not long afterward, Stacy Tetschner, who was hired as president and CEO of the association when Parra retired in 2017, left to head the American Traffic Safety Services Association. UMA President and CEO Larry Killingsworth, a former MCI executive, replaced Tetschner in March 2020.
Before Polzien and Killingsworth had time to settle into their new roles, the pandemic shut down the economy and most of the country, including the motorcoach industry.
“Within a month and a half of my becoming chairman, we were in the middle of the pandemic,” Polzien said. “As a result, we’ve been doing whatever we can to deal with it — reshaping UMA, doing more legislative work, holding virtual seminars and weekly town halls, and launching the Daily NewsFlash.”
Efficient and effective
He said his main goal upon becoming chairman was to make UMA as efficient and effective as possible.
“The pandemic forced us to do quickly what I wanted to do gradually,” he said. “We’ve become more effective with fewer resources.”
Now, Polzien is looking forward to April’s EXPO 2021 in Orlando to celebrate UMA’s 50th anniversary and to further unite members.
“It should be a very rewarding event for those who can make it,” he said. “It’s going to be great to see people in person instead of over Zoom, to look at each other face-to-face, even while social distancing and wearing masks. We’re in this together, and we will come out of it together. And coming out of it, UMA is poised to be a strong, solid organization representing the industry into the future.”