How Rhode Island, Maine operators opened the door for CERTS Act with lawmakers

Motorcoach operators in Rhode Island and Maine were instrumental in laying the groundwork for the proposed CERTS Act that could provide $10 billion in emergency funding to the motorcoach industry and other transportation providers.

The annual legislative Fly-In, which provides United Motorcoach Association members with the opportunity to meet with their congressional representatives and staff, also played a role in the development of the proposal.

“The legislation came about thanks to the work of the Rhode Island and Maine operators,” said Ken Presley, UMA’s vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs and industry relations/COO. “They initiated the conversations with their Senators that eventually led to the CERTS Act.”

The Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services (CERTS) Act of 2020, introduced July 2 by Sens. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, would allocate $10 billion in grants and other economic assistance to motorcoach operators, school bus companies, U.S. flagged passenger vessel operators and other transportation service providers.

Initial discussions

Tom McCaughey, owner of Flagship Trailways in Cranston, Rhode Island, said the seeds of the CERTS Act were planted in April during discussions he had with Reed about the devastating effect the coronavirus pandemic was having on the motorcoach industry, which virtually shut down in March.

Tom McCaughey and VP Suchada Kumnerdsupapol with Senator Jack Reed at the 2019 UMA Fly-In.

Those discussions were an outgrowth of McCaughey’s longtime participation in the UMA Fly-In.

“I have been attending Fly-Ins for several years,” McCaughey said. “As a result, I was able to develop a relationship with Sen. Reed’s legislative staff. That sure came in handy for this.”

He said he contacted Reed’s office and sent position papers to the senator, outlining the benefits the motorcoach industry provides to the country and how the pandemic has brought business almost to a halt for most operators.

“He was interested enough to actually read them,” McCaughey said. “Then he called me, and we had a lengthy discussion about our industry. He was receptive, and he took the initiative to develop legislation to help us.”

Maine contingent

Meanwhile, motorcoach operators in Maine were in contact with Collins to discuss the plight of the industry.

“We talked to the senator regularly, and she was aware of the situation,” said Scott Riccio, owner and president of Northeast Charter & Tour Co. in Lewiston, Maine, and a member of UMA’s board of directors.

Sen. Angus King with Jason Briggs and Scott Riccio.

Also involved with the lobbying effort were Maine’s three other major motorcoach operators, some of whom already had personal relationships with the senator: Jason Briggs of VIP Tour & Charter Bus Co. in Portland; Joe and Mike Cyr of Cyr Bus Line in Old Town; and Gregg Isherwood of Custom Coach and Limousine in Gorham.

“I grew up with Sen. Collins’ family,” Briggs said. “Her father, who was a state senator, used to take me to the capitol. And Joe Cyr has a camp next to hers. Maine isn’t a state, it’s a community.”

Recognizing industry value

Briggs said when Collins ran for governor several years ago, his company provided her campaign bus. 

“She recognizes how important it is to go around the state in a bus,” he said. “She knows the importance of the bus industry to Maine and the country.”

When Reed was looking for a co-sponsor of his bill, Collins signed on. They then contacted UMA and the American Bus Association for input on the legislation to provide funding to the motorcoach industry.

“Reed heard his constituents and agreed to help,” Presley said. “He sought a co-sponsor, and Collins joined him. They asked us to contribute to the legislation, and we did, extensively, and they adopted a lot of what we suggested. There is a section reserved for the over-the-road bus industry.”

Grants and loans

Presley said the CERTS Act originally would have provided grants, but it was apparent that the proposal would never pass in the Senate, so it was altered to include a combination of grants and loans.

The legislation calls for grants and loans not to exceed the amount of revenue earned in calendar year 2019 by a recipient, and will mainly focus on helping companies retain employees, Presley said.

There also will be other activities that are eligible for the CERTS Act funds, including the acquisition of service equipment and personal protective equipment, and maintenance of existing capital equipment facilities, including leases and insurance.

The fate of the legislation will be determined in early August as Congress negotiates a final coronavirus relief bill. Presley said provisions of the CERTS Act likely would be included in such a relief bill.

“The CERTS Act was never intended to be its own bill,” he said.

Letters of support

Since the act was introduced early this month, UMA has launched a campaign encouraging motorcoach operators and industry friends around the country to email letters to their senators, asking them to support the act.

“Once we knew the CERTS Act was launched, and once we knew what it was all about, we started asking our employees to fill out forms and letters,” Riccio said. “We got the word out to our 2,300 customers and to summer camps, hotels, cruise lines, tour guides, banks, chambers of commerce — anyone who needs group travel in order to be successful and relies on the motorcoach industry. We went to all of them and told them, ‘We know group travel is important to you. Your support can help this pass.’”

UMA has been tracking the numbers of people sending the letters — called industry advocates — and the total number of letters sent in each state. The association also is compiling state-by-state rankings based on the number of advocates in each state.

Although Maine has only four motorcoach operators, it ranked 11th among states as of Friday. 

“For only having four companies, that’s pretty impressive,” Riccio said.“I’m proud of Maine.”

Briggs said it is important for motorcoach operators to do all they can to make sure their senators and representatives support the act, because it could be the only way many of them survive the current crisis.

“If this goes through, it could really save a bunch of us,” he said.

Share this post