What’s in Store for the Post-COVID Era Motorcoach Industry

As disturbing as recent USDOT appointments have been, I almost did not write this column. When the FMCSA administrator was nominated, I felt I had to. This is because the FMCSA regulates, governs and largely influences both the troubled motorcoach industry and vaccine distribution (at least those vaccines delivered by trucks). Given even the most conservative budgets currently being discussed (as of February 2, 2021), the potential waste in vaccine distribution is disturbing since it greatly exceeds what is needed to completely restore the motorcoach industry – including subsidies it may need for several years to get back on its tires.

This article is not a partisan political criticism. I voted for neither recent candidate. I am not criticizing President Biden now. I am merely explaining the consequences of cabinet and administrator choices being made in the passenger and freight transportation fields, and commenting on the overall challenges of running the labyrinth of variation and complexity which USDOT is.

Slots must be matched by individuals with a reasonable knowledge to run their department

 

Balancing and Teetering 

Appointing individuals to cabinet positions and their departments’ administrators is a balancing act. In efforts to accomplish numerous diverse goals, appointments necessarily involve tradeoffs and compromises. Among others: Slots must be matched by individuals with a reasonable knowledge to run their departments and administrations. Bright and articulate individuals are usually helpful. Some individuals should be rewarded for exemplary contributions to campaigns and society in general. Some appointments are important symbolically. It is usually good for appointees to have a heart.

Above all, every president’s administration must stand for something – even while many Americans do not like what this one stands for. Amidst this balancing act, President Biden appointed the first Native American to direct the Department of the Interior. This was a bold, courageous move that appears to have involved no tradeoffs, even if it sent shivers down the corporate spines of energy and mining oligopolies and their shareholders. Deb Haaland appears to meet every criterion. So too did the President’s nomination for Director of the Department of Defense – former four-star general Lloyd Austin – whose nomination was approved 93-2 by the new 50:50 Senate.

I similarly applaud President Biden for appointing the first gay member to his cabinet – although USDOT Director was a dangerous place to put him, particularly as it was worsened dramatically by the followups. Women and minorities have also been appointed to direct departments. Whether or not one feels this criterion is important, superficially or politically, this cabinet indeed “looks like America.” This alone stands for something – both domestically and internationally. Otherwise, the pyramid of appointments thus far to USDOT, including several administrators, should be of great concern to members of the motorcoach industry. That this sector ’s regulatory agency, the FMCSA, also regulates trucking, should be of extraordinary concern to the nation-at-large, engulfed as we are in a raging pandemic whose infections are spreading and morphing.

Tiny Tots and Toy Cars

At age three, I was thrilled with my first toy car. I moved them around a lot. In the Dr. Spock-dominated era of my youth, existing children were supposed to resent new siblings. So at age four, the announcement of my soon-to-arrive younger sister was accompanied by an elaborate gift: A huge bus terminal (sloppily resembling the Port Authority Bus Terminal) almost as large as my crib. This toy literally shaped my life, as I morphed from a public transportation consultant, to an operator, to a bus designer and marketer to an expert witness – sandwiching in 300+ documents and (mostly) articles along the way.

Recognizing the dysfunctions of public transportation when I verily entered the field 45 years ago, I evolved to an expert witness 20 year later. I was astonished to learn that most lawyers think transportation has the complexity I did at age three. The wheels on the bus go round and round, and there is not much more to it. I suspect President Biden’s understanding is not much more sophisticated, given his appointments to USDOT and its administrations. Each appointee seems less qualified than the one preceding him or her. NATIONAL BUS TRADER readers and motorcoach operators need to know what they are in for.

 

The Secretary of USDOT must know a tire from a wheel.

 

USDOT and US Dolts

From what I have read and heard, I like Pete Buttigieg. He seems smart and articulate. He seems to know how to run a city. He reeks of integrity. I can see him as an excellent ambassador to a country with which we have problems. Russia perhaps. However, the Secretary of USDOT must know a tire from a wheel – much less the functional differences between a school bus and a transit bus. He or she must know some basics about trucking, freight rail, aviation, the Coast Guard, maritime travel, pipeline and hazardous materials and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Were it not for President Biden’s subsequent appointments, Buttigieg might have had a chance to learn some rudiments. With each successive appointment, the odds grow slimmer and slimmer. To the Deputy Secretary position, President Biden nominated the Director of NYC’s Department of Transportation, Polly Trottenberg – plucked from a policy position within USDOT seven years earlier (presumably to help NYC obtain grant funds). During her tenure, Trottenberg presided over the demise of every public transportation mode in the city.

  • Despite the staggering increase in poverty and “transit-dependence” during the Trump Administration, NYC’s transit ridership shrank by roughly 10 percent a year in the two years preceding the emergence of COVID-19 (as it did, similarly, nationwide).
  • National Bus Trader / March, 2021 Safety and Liability by Ned Einstein Slots must be matched by individuals with a reasonable knowledge to run their departments and administrations. The Secretary of USDOT must know a tire from a wheel.
  • During the first few months of the pandemic, with no warnings or guidance, the NYC subway system was packed elbow to elbow. Forty-one NYCTA workers died quickly. By early spring, 6,000 NYCTA workers called in sick.
  • By the end of 2015, when the cost of a taxi medallion was roughly $1.1 million, the city allowed 15,000 Ubers to enter the city without a medallion fee. This decision deprived the city of roughly $16.5 billion. Realistically, few Uber drivers would have paid anything near these fees. Were the demand they ostensibly reflected been satisfied by actual taxis, taxi owners would have. (A recent count estimated between 45,000 and 60,000 Ubers operating within the city’s five boroughs.)
  • Even without paying medallion fees, Uber (and Lyft’s) “gig working” drivers were among the nation’s most exploited workers – not to mention these completely unmanaged services being the most dangerous transportation mode since the end of the whaling industry, in the late 19th Century. Some states, like New Jersey, actually did something about Uber – fining it $639 million for not granting drivers employee status (see www.nytimes.com/2019/11/14/nyreg i o n / u b e r – n e w – j e r s e y – drivers.html?action=click&module=News& pgtype=Homepage.)
  • Later this past year, with the NYCTA thinning out its bus service, 11,000 taxis that could have accommodated some transit passengers were deployed to deliver groceries and other packages – tasks which the city’s armada of trucks and vans (not usable for passenger transportation) could have done more efficiently.
  • Fare collection became a nightmare. (See “Drivers v. Robots, Part 8 — Collecting Fares, Skimming the Passengers”.) As more than 500 fare kiosks were shut down, tokens evolved into farecards – with card-dispensing machines often out of order, out of change, and/or often unable to accept cash. (Remember cash?) Along many bus routes, one could not even pay on board with a farecard. One had to purchase a receipt from a machine at the bus stop – only to hand them to the driver, who formerly did not have to handle anything. Of course, with almost every single bus route in the system operating behind schedules unreasonably too tight, drivers had even less time to check these receipts.
  • Nor was there, obviously, any way to monitor a passenger who simply boarded without one. Fare-cheating at the bus level became legendary. Many riders effortlessly hopped on buses via their rear doors (which contained no fareboxes) – which drivers were supposed to open only to let passengers alight.
  • While the notion of replacing subway service during the “owl period” was never seriously considered (while common elsewhere throughout the country), the city’s subway system only began shutting down (after COVID-19 had killed its first 20,000 or so New Yorkers) from 2-6 a.m., ostensibly so that maintenance crews could disinfect the cars – when it was known that COVID-19’s potential for infection did not last long on surfaces. In real life, this action was taken largely to keep many of the city’s 50,000 homeless residents from sleeping on the subway – during those hours when most lines, and most segments, were barely used. Years earlier, armed with my plan for effortlessly housing half the city’s then 30,000 homeless residents in the city’s 1,500 motorcoaches unused during nights and weekends (see NAT IONAL BUS TRADER, December, 2012), my former secretary, Katie Moore, was hired by Mayor De Blasio and put in charge of the city’s homeless – and could not get this idea past the entrance of her cubicle; several months later, she resigned.
  • The city’s subway system was in such disrepair that trains were derailing, midtown, because of track disrepair. (In the past, trains derailed mostly from centrifugal force because the trains’ speed around turns grossly exceeded the designated speed limits.)
  • With her policy acumen, Trottenberg did nothing to stop motorcoaches entering the city from paying tolls – even while, unsubsidized, a single, full motorcoach (with no standees) transports the same number of passengers as 40 cars (which also require parking spaces).
  • Trottenberg did little to address problems of the city’s 9,000 school buses. Last year, a commission suddenly discovered that 6,000 of the city’s 9,000 schoolbuses’ GPS units were missing. Trottenberg and others in the city should have learned their lessons in 2011, when the city was forced to return $550 million to Medicaid because its GPS system failed to capture the required data.
  • Regarding trucking, must trucks enter the NYC via the intersection of Route #4 and Interstate 95 at the bi-level George Washington Bridge. When, COVID struck, the lower level was so empty that a small plane could have taken off or landed on it, were it not for the structure above. Yet the upper level – designated for trucks and motorcoaches only – resembled the world’s longest parking lot, often requiring a truck or motorcoach to spend hours traversing it.

Stuffing Staff with Stooges

As one knows, each department contains several administrations. It should be alarming that the next administrator nominated, as Director of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), was Nuria Fernandez – the president of APTA, the transit industry’s principle lobbying organization. That many transit agencies received, and will continue to receive, more bail-out funds than they lost from ridership decreases during the COVID- 19 era provides a curious illustration of how one “cleans up the swamp” by appointing “K-Streeters” to key departmental positions. Fernandez did a stellar job facilitating the distribution of billions to a sector recently experiencing two-digit declines in ridership and pathetic farebox recovery ratios (see Operating Ratios of transit systems). It will interesting to watch how much more funding this sector receives now that Fernandez is effectively in control of doling it out.

Then, of course, comes the FMCSA. President Biden’s nomination for that position was none other than Meera Joshi, formerly (for five years) the chairwoman and CEO of New York City’s hapless Taxi and Limousine Commission, and more recently, an attorney with the transportation-oriented law firm of Sam Schwartz. More than even Trottenberg, Meera presided over the demise of one of the nation’s most decimated taxi systems. That thousands of driver-owners were ruined by the collapse of the medallion scheme – only partly caused by the influx of Uber and Lyft into the city without paying medallion fees, and otherwise defrauded by loan sharks – is a testament to her skill and integrity. After the taxi market literally collapsed from the medallion scam, Mayor DeBlasio refused to bail out its victims (see “They were Conned: How Reckless Loans Devastated a Generation of Taxi Drivers”  @ www.nytimes.com)

For a glimpse into what Meera may have in mind for the FMCSA, one only needs to take a few peeks at her and New York City’s handing of both Uber and delivery services – and what is likely in store for their drivers:

Looking Like Losers

One member of the above-mentioned quartet failed to mitigate the collapse of every mode of passenger and freight transportation over which they exercised the highest degree of control. Another was in charge of lobbying for the sector to which she will now be handing over money. A third progressed from ruining a local taxi industry to running a nationwide network of trucks and delivery vans – during the greatest distribution challenge in modern history. (Governing the 15 percent of motorcoaches currently in service is an asterisk.) The fourth, in charge of the other three, may have washed his car a few times. What can we expect this quartet to do to a country most parts of which they are unfamiliar, with urban forms far less conducive to efficient transportation than the one which two of them gutted with their incompetence?

Apart from “Poor Pete,” his underlings stand for creating or observing failure, and rewarding it. They stand for exploiting working class Americans. They stand for denying workers the benefits afforded by the unions which President Biden professes to practically worship. (His failure to mention how they can rid themselves of their bad apples lies outside the scope of this article.) They stand for helping big business replace employees with gig workers. They stand for using passenger vehicles for deliveries. They stand for increasing subsidies needed to deploy large vehicles which transport scores of passengers at a time with 60,000 vehicles which carry one or two at a time. They stand for ruses to kick homeless residents off transportation vehicles when few or no passengers are using them. They stand for selling transit passes through an Uber app. They stand for the collapse of delivery services. They stand for increased traffic and declining air quality. They stand for transit systems where every bus’ schedule is too tight, where every bus runs behind schedule and where transfers are regularly missed. They stand for replacing employees (like taxi drivers) with 1099 workers (like Uber drivers). The stand for squandering countless billions in revenue from a mode whose drivers were managed, and who received fringe benefits. They stand for the elimination of millions of jobs and their replacement with robots behind-the-wheel.

America looks like it is in for big trouble.

If this collection of know-nothings and losers “looks like America,”  The motorcoach sector is likely a permanent victim. Unfortunately, this is an asterisk when one examines even three sets of numbers:

  • On February 2, 2021, Moderna announced that it could squeeze 15 doses of vaccine in a vial previously filled with 10, and that it could fill 1000 vials a minute (see Moderna can bottle 1000 vials a minute, with 15 doses per vial)
  • This figure computes to 15,000 doses a minute, or 900,000 doses an hour, or 216,000,000 per day, or 648,000,000 per month. In other words, Moderna alone can bottle enough vaccine to vaccinate almost our entire nation, with two doses, in a single month – notwithstanding the fact that a significant two-digit percentage of our population disdains COVID-19 vaccinations, and the materials to fill these vials is not as available as is the company’s bottling capability. (Forget about Pfizer and AstraZeneca, with leviathan Johnson & Johnson just over the horizon.)
  • The Republican’s current proposed rescue package of $618 billion – a figure the Democrats would like to triple – contains $160 billion for vaccine distribution.

If one could fill an 18-wheeler with a mere 1,000 vials (which a large tropical fish tank could likely hold), and dividing our population of 340 million – with two doses each (or 680 million) by 15,000 doses, we could need only 45,333 truckloads. Dividing these truckloads into even $160 billion, each truckload would cost $3,529,437. This seems like a lot of money for a single truckload. If an 18- wheeler could ship 40,000 vials (which seems possible with even sloppy visualization), a truckload of vials would cost $141,177,508.

Just the same, this sum suggests an astonishing waste of money.

Chaos and Capability

I realize that distribution in a country of 3,797 million square miles (including two detached land masses) cannot remotely be this streamlined. Many vehicles could only transfer a few hundred, or even a few dozen, vials of vaccine to their needed destinations. I recognize that trucks must be loaded and unloaded, and that the crates of vials must be broken down and carried in and out of vaccination centers (and so many Starbucks and other tiny facilities that have lobbied to become vaccination centers). In some cases the vaccine must be packaged in dry ice and maintained at low temperatures their entire time (the Pfizer vaccine for example must be kept at a -84∘F.). The crude analysis above greatly overstates the profit per distribution vehicle. Just the same, this sum suggests an astonishing waste of money. Does it make sense to place in charge of this challenge an individual who headed one of the nation’s worst taxi and limousine commissions, and who presided over the demise and misuse of the simplest mode of transportation to operate and regulate next to bicycles? (Need I mention the blunders of NYC’s overblown bicycle sharing program?)

The consultant to the FMCSA Administrator in charge of this task of extraordinary importance and dazzling complexity need merely be a decent middle school math student with a calculator. The person in charge of this task must understand more than multiplication and division. He or she must be a master of logistics and its countless physical, geographic, institutional, regulatory and economic variables.

The failure to master the opportunities implicit in our vaccination potential will translate, conservatively, into hundreds of thousands of deaths. As a mere footnote to this tragedy, the motorcoach industry will go down in smoke.

It is about time Americans demanded more than political slogans, promises and platitudes from its decision-makers. It is fine to give Polly a cracker. It is another thing to anoint her as the only person with transportation experience of any kind to the agency in charge of a daunting expanse of interests. Is it another to place the savior of our transit industry in the hands of someone who failed to make it efficient, failed to stem its decline and who instead supervised its efforts to compensate for these failures by requesting taxpayers’ money to do so. It is still another to place so many passenger and (mostly) freight services in the hands of a bungling bureaucrat not remotely familiar with the modes she has just been placed in charge of. God bless America.

 

The motorcoach industry and the American people will need far more than blessings.

 

God bless President Biden. If things stay the way they are, America looks like it is in for big trouble. Just the same, this sum suggests an astonishing waste of money.  We will need responsibility and competence. While blessings may come our way, responsibility and competence seem far, far away.

 

The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NaTioNal Bus Trader, inc. or its staff and management. Safety & Liability • National Bus Trader / March, 2021 Safety and Liability The motorcoach industry and the American people will need far more than blessings. Ned Einstein is the president of Transportation Alternatives (transalt.com), a public transportation consulting/expert witness firm.

Einstein (einstein@transalt.com) specializes in catastrophic motorcoach accidents. 1/3 Open 1/2 Open Safety & Liability • National Bus Trader / March 2021 Safety and Liability


Publications: National Bus Trader.