Taking to the Hill

Motorcoach operators plan for unified day of meeting legislators, explaining their side of issues

The term “old-fashioned shoe leather” doesn’t necessarily apply just to journalists going to the source. It’s also the concept behind the United Motorcoach Association’s April 2-3 Legislative Fly-In, an attempt to get well over 100 operators representing 20-some organizations to trek between legislative offices for in-person meetings about issues facing the industry.

Just ask Brian Sours, president of the Virginia Motorcoach Association. He put so many miles on his black dress shoes while representing his Richards Bus company and the industry last year that he blew out the soles. He bought a new pair and is coming to Washington, D.C., this year both with better walking shoes and a new confidence in sharing issues of importance to operators like him.

“I feel more comfortable speaking my mind and maybe leading some meetings this year,” said Sours, who spent his first Fly-In mostly listening and letting relative veterans take the lead. He quickly realized there was no need to be nervous.

“It’s especially nice when we told them how many people we were employing,” he said of the legislators and staff members he met with. “I felt like we had the ear of whomever we were meeting with, and it seemed they were genuinely interested. A couple of people said, ‘I was on a charter bus trip with my kids two weeks ago.’”

This year’s Fly-In is being powered by the United Motorcoach Association but with the essential participation of organizations including the Alabama Motorcoach Association, Bus Association of New York, California Bus Association, Georgia Motorcoach Operators Association, Greater New Jersey Motorcoach Association, Hawaii Transportation Association, Maryland Motorcoach Association, Midwest Bus & Motorcoach Association, Minnesota Charter Bus Operators Association, Motorcoach Association of South Carolina, New England Bus Association, North Carolina Motorcoach Association, Northwest Motorcoach Association, South Central Motorcoach Association, Virginia Motorcoach Association, Asian American Motorcoach Association, International Motorcoach Group, National Association of Motorcoach Operators and Trailways Charter Bus Network.

The International Motorcoach Group (IMG) is sending representatives “to support the industry and UMA’s efforts in putting together the chance to bring concerns to Capitol Hill,” says President Bronwyn Wilson who counts infrastructure and road repair needs and skyrocketing costs for motorcoach entry into national parks as key issues to address.

Among issues of concern is the need to keep minimum insurance limits for motorcoaches at a moderate level. It’s now set at $5 million per vehicle but was proposed (before industry protests) to be $20 million, maybe more.

“These amounts would decimate the backbone of the industry —small fleet operators—and prevented entry into the business for many others,” said UMA President and CEO Stacy Tetschner.

This year, UMA sought recommendations from participating associations on the key issues they’re facing, and once the issues of focus are selected, UMA staff members and consultants will brief participants until they feel comfortable answering related questions. Briefings are done in a fun way, often accompanied by a game-show format. Staff sets participant schedules, and nearly everyone is accompanied on visits by experienced operators or staff members.

Cary Martin, president of Little Rock Tours and Travel and a returning participant, says he likes that the group will be traveling to Capitol Hill at a time they’re not putting out fires relating to legislative efforts threatening their businesses. Instead, they can spend meetings pointing out the need to preserve the status quo on issues like fuel tax rebates and share ways operators already are “fighting for safety every day.” While most legislation comes from a place of good intention, he and others noted, legislators and their staff don’t always know the industry well enough to understand the unintended consequences of their proposed bills.

Last year’s Fly-In discussions of what’s known as the Lease Interchange Rule was one example, said Marcia Milton, a UMA board member who has participated in every Fly-In and is the owner of First Priority Trailways of District Heights, Maryland.

“It made it real for (legislators) when we said “If the bus breaks down on the side of the road and if we don’t have the right form, we need to sit there,’” she said. “I think it hit home that things do happen that are unplanned and that we have to move the coach off the road as quickly as we can and make sure everyone is safe.”

Milton advises those new to the Fly-In to find common ground with the staff member or legislators they meet. Share that you’re a taxpayer in the district and a voter, and beyond that how many people you employ and how many lives you touch as you offer transportation for churches, schools, sports teams and tours.

“I think the light goes on when we start talking about field trips and schools,” she said. “They represent a lot of people and have their own children, and when children go on field trips, they go on motorcoaches.”

Adds Roni Stevens, who knows the capitol better than most as director of marketing and sales for DC Tours—best known for its Hop On, Hop Off tours of the nation’s capitol—reminds others that if legislators sometimes appear to not like buses, they like the revenue they generate.

“I think the most important thing we can do is support our industry,” she said, “and let them know we are fierce. Being able to show strength in numbers is huge.”

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