COVID-19
  • A New Age of Enforcement: Adjusting to Remote and Offsite Investigations & How to Prepare By:

    Presented as part of ABA’s BISC & BusMARC 2021 Virtual Safety & Maintenance Series The American Bus Association’s Bus Industry Safety Council (BISC) and Bus Maintenance Repair Council’s (BusMARC) 2021 Virtual Safety & Maintenance Series offered a sequence of educational webinars early this year, covering a variety of industry-related topics. As part of its ongoing webinar series, the ABA hosted a virtual meeting with presenters Catterson Oh and Danielle Smith, transportation specialists with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Compliance Division. Oh and Smith focused on COVID-19 national emergency investigative process updates including changes to the FMCSA investigative procedures due to COVID-19, recordkeeping and documentation as the result of COVID-19, and providing accurate documentation for FMCSA investigations. Changes to Investigative Procedures as a Result of the COVID-19 Health Emergency In May 2020, the FMCSA released guidance allowing investigators to conduct remote onsite investigations. These remote onsite investigations are intended to follow the same general process as offsite investigations with the exception that most of the investigation is now completed remotely. According to Oh, May 2020 resulted in a significant expansion to the FMCSA’s remote functionality. While motorcoach operators may not have seen any investigations in the last year, Oh noted that due to this expanded functionality, companies should expect a considerable increase in the number of investigations moving forward. “In terms of the offsite investigations with this pandemic, the policy with this particular type of investigation has not changed,” Oh said. “The offsite investigation will still be recommended for carriers that meet the appropriate criteria for this population of carriers.” Although carriers will not receive a rating from an offsite investigation, offsite investigations may be converted to onsite remote investigations under certain circumstances. Carriers with investigations that are converted onsite may be issued a Safety Fitness Rating. Overview of Investigation Process   Safety Investigator (SI) will conduct an initial phone call with the carrier to introduce themselves, and review the reason for the investigation and next steps.  2. SI will email the carrier an Initial Contact Letter that will go over initial documents being requested.  3. Carrier will upload the initial documents to the Safety Measurement System (SMS).  4. After SI receives the initial documents, they may request additional documents via a Document Request Letter.  5. SI may contact the carrier via phone and email throughout the investigation.  6. Once SI has completed the investigation, they will request a closeout meeting with the carrier, which can be done via phone, Microsoft Teams, Skype, or other platform.  7. Carrier may receive a Safety Rating upon completion of the Remote Onsite Investigation. According to Oh, carriers subject to investigation will receive a phone call, followed by an initial contact letter, from an FMSCA Safety Investigator (SI) introducing themselves, the reason for investigation and next steps. Once a carrier has received this letter, that carrier’s information will need to be uploaded into the FMCSA Safety Measurement System (SMS). After receiving the initial documents, an SI will review the content to determine if additional documentation is required. If additional documentation is needed the SI will issue a “document request letter.” “This is where things start kind of diverting from the normal way of doing things,” Oh explained. “Especially when you have performed onsite investigations.” An SI will start contacting the carrier via phone and e-mail throughout the investigation. In a normal onsite investigation, the SI would be with the carrier in person to answer questions and provide additional guidance.  Once the SI has completed their investigation, they will request a close out meeting with the carrier. This can be done over the phone or, more likely, in a video conferencing setting. At this point, the carrier may receive a safety rating upon completion of the remote onsite investigation.  Once the SMS has processed the information, the carrier will be able to access their dashboard, track investigation progress, check due dates and required documents, view call-to-action reminders, upload documentation, and learn to use data to increase safety performance. After the SI has reviewed all of the required documents, they will send the carrier a request for a meeting to close out the investigation. Typically, this is done onsite, face-to-face however, since the onset of the pandemic, closeouts are now performed virtually. Reinstatement After Voluntary Revocation of Operating Authority In March 2020, the FMCSA issued multiple exemptions in response to the national health emergency. One of those exemptions included waiving the $80 reinstatement fee for carriers who opted to voluntarily revoke their Passenger Operating Authority.  Carriers with a USDOT pin can login into their profile, update their registration information, and complete an MCSA-5889 form, a Motor Carrier Records Change.  Carriers without a USDOT pin, can register and request a pin number through the FMCSA website. Before submitting a request, carriers will need to file a BOC-3 (Designation of Process Agent), confirm insurance filings are up to date, and make sure that their USDOT number is reinstated and activated. Once these items are completed, the reinstatement request is going to be put on hold until the carrier has everything submitted properly. “If all is submitted and you do have to pay that fee, then you’ll get it reinstated no later than the fourth business day after the payment is processed,” Smith explained. “You can request that the fee is waived, you’re just going to submit it through EMC’s e-mail address rather than doing it through the normal process online.”  FMCSA Ratings The FMCSA issues three types of ratings. Satisfactory, conditional, or unsatisfactory. Satisfactory means that there are safety systems in place and they all appear to be working. Conditional means that there are safety systems in place, but there are breakdowns within some of those systems. While carriers are still able to operate with a conditional rating, some choose not to do so and would rather upgrade their score. Unsatisfactory ratings mean a carrier is considered unfit and are not allowed to operate after that time.  “All of the critical violations are listed within the Read More >

Motorcoach
  • Best Tours & Travel Makes Its Comeback By:

    California’s Best Tours & Travel reopens strong after a tireless 2020 keeping customers, lawmakers, and a changing traveling public close to its business Best Tours & Travel’s recent reopening saw sellout tours and a continuing recovery in their private charter operations thanks to nonstop outreach throughout 2020’s shutdown months that continues today.  With COVID-19, the Fresno, California motorcoach company faced the rockiest road ever in its 43-year history. But a successful community outreach program has rebuilt customer confidence and a brand relaunch featuring safe leisure tour packages is now attracting riders from every demographic. Working throughout the pandemic with staff intact, Best Tours & Travel was prepared to rise quickly when statewide restrictions ended in June.  And it has. Jasmine Sayah, director of operations and next-generation leadership of the company founded by her parents, credits constant communication during lockdown. A big social media push during shutdown helped win back existing customers and attract new ones. “Our private charter business started coming back in the spring of 2021 when California opened up,” she said. “Many of the tours sold out within 20 days of opening.”  Charter capacity now stands at 100 percent with all 10 motorcoaches on the road in constant use. Even after 23 years of experience in her family business, Sayah did not anticipate the COVID-19 shutdown’s impact on staff, families, and the community.  “Everything came to a standstill,” she said. “We refunded everyone and were hit hard with deep revenue loss in 2020. We filed for SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program and sold our oldest equipment which helped keep staff and their benefits in place.”  Today, they are ready to hire new team members.  “We see opportunity and want to hire and train new drivers and technicians,” she said.  Travel That Puts Health and Safety First During lockdown and even today, Best Tours’ staff spent many hours on Zoom and telephone calls with buyers at corporations, colleges and national parks offering updates on the care and operations of its coach fleet including the latest sanitizing practices and safety mandates.  “We know that COVID-19 will always be the first thing on passengers’ and clients’ minds before making a travel commitment for some time,” Sayah said. “But by requiring that all passengers wear masks now, our riders can feel at ease and have confidence in the ability to travel by motorcoach.”  The company will continue to provide hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes onboard. On most trips, passengers are allowed to pick their seats, so groups get the kind of travel experience they are comfortable with.  “We are seeing some smaller groups of 30 or less still wanting a 56-passenger coach, and that’s fine,” Sayah said. “We can accommodate most requests.”  Tours for Every Taste  As the economy reopens, domestic leisure travel leads business travel nationwide as families reunite and vacation plans return. That is great news for Best Tours & Travel, which creates one-of-a-kind trips from one-day outings to overnight stays at popular destinations.  “Our tours are guided, and we always have a hostess onboard,” said Sayah, who often plans the trips herself and polls customers to learn their preferences. “We take the tour beforehand so we know the exact itinerary we want to promote. If it’s good for me, I am confident it will be enjoyed by others.”   Reminding Travelers About the Advantages of Motorcoach Travel With safety precautions in place, Sayah thinks it is time to restart the discussion about motorcoach travel’s traditional strengths.  “We have a newer fleet of coaches powered by clean diesel engines,” she explained. “Travel by motorcoach is by far the greenest way to travel per passenger mile among planes, trains and cars.”  Motorcoaches also beat the competition by checking all the boxes of what travelers want today: safety, savings, and convenience. These features are also part of Best Tours’ longtime messaging to the community and clients it serves.  As a board member of the California Bus Association (CBA), Sayah supports CBA’s work on behalf of its members. When California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) required fleet renewal registration even though coaches were parked during the COVID shutdown, Sayah worked in cooperation with other CBA members, contacting her local representatives, to successfully convince the California State Assembly to refund 2020 registration fees. With future coffee dates planned with her local assembly members, Sayah said operators can benefit by getting involved and building rapport with their representatives and regulators at the local, state, and federal level.  “We are family-owned small businesses in a niche market,” she said. “But our motorcoaches have a big impact. We are green, clean, and necessary for leisure, corporate, athletic and school travel and to move groups of people in emergency situations.”  She added that public officials also benefit by understanding “the intricacies of our operations as they decide which regulations should impact our country’s transportation infrastructure. We want a seat at the table.”  A Business Built on Relationships  Sayah was a newborn when her father Nick opened up a boutique travel agency specializing in tours. With a civil engineering degree and an established career as a travel agent working for airlines, his new business flourished. Best Tours decals started appearing on local rented motorcoaches and as the business grew, Nick Sayah took the financial leap to build his own fleet.  “I remember Saturday mornings getting up at 4:30 to go with mom and dad to the bus yard and help with paperwork and see the travelers off,” she said. “It was the greatest fun in the world. Back then, everything was done the old-fashioned way. Yet the way they put relationships at the center of everything, that’s how we still operate today.” Best Tours & Travel is also a member of the American Bus Association (ABA) and the United Motorcoach Association (UMA). At the CBA, Jasmine Sayah has served as a board member since 2019. She is also a member of ABA’s Women in Buses Council and Board Member of Saint Agnes Women’s Club.  “This past year was a Read More >

Transit
  • Follow the money for transportation contracting opportunities in America By:

    People are on the move again, and many are relying on public transit. In fact, transit ridership is up more than 80 percent since 2020, according to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and other grant programs have provided billions in funding for transit authorities nationwide. If Congress passes the infrastructure bill, billions more will flow to transit authorities. And finally, it is important to also note the many local bond elections throughout the country have provided even more funding for upcoming public transportation projects. Government contractors of every type and size will find an abundance of contracting opportunities with transit authorities over the next several years. A few examples follow. Washington The FTA recently announced funding awards from the Capital Investment Grant (CIG) program. The CIG provides funding for construction and expansion of new and existing public transit systems. The revenue can be used for light rail, bus rapid transit, commuter rail, streetcars, and ferries. Seattle’s Sound Transit light rail expansion project received a CIG grant of $94 million. Another $158 million was received through ARPA funding. Seattle’s expansion project, however, had a cost estimate of $3.1 billion. That earlier estimate is now reset at somewhere between $4.8 billion and $6.2 billion. Community Transit, the state’s public transit authority, has received $6.5 million in ARPA funding for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project that includes 13 stations. Another public transit project was awarded $20.7 million. Seattle’s Department of Transportation Madison Street BRT project received $10.9 million, and another bus rapid transit project was allocated $3.7 million. Pennsylvania The Port Authority of Allegheny County is working to secure funding for a proposed BRT system project that has an estimated $230 million cost. The Port Authority was also, unexpectedly, allocated $19.3 million in ARPA funding to support previously funded projects. New Jersey and New York Amtrak is currently closing on a financing plan and an agreement for a $11.6 billion Gateway Tunnel that will benefit both New Jersey and New York. The plan will be reviewed by the Gateway Development Corporation, a consortium selected to oversee the project. The consortium includes representatives from New York, New Jersey, Amtrak, NJ Transit, and the Port Authority. A finalized plan must be submitted to the grant program by August 27 to be eligible for funding this fiscal year. The Gateway Development Corporation will request $5.5 billion more from the federal government to supplement the recent funding. Wisconsin The city of Madison has several mass transit projects. One project includes construction of a new BRT system for approximately $160 million. It will be partially subsidized by the federal government. Construction on three new high-speed bus lines will begin by 2023, and the system, when completed, will connect the city’s east and west sides. It will include 31 station locations. Illinois The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is accepting funding applications for projects that will improve public transit systems outside the city of Chicago. The state’s capital construction program also has $110 million in funding. A total of $355 million is targeted for competitive construction grants for transit programs across the state. Virginia Like many municipalities, the town of South Boston is ready to spend its allocated $7.8 million in ARPA funding, and community input has been especially supportive of having much of it used for upgrades to transit infrastructure. City leaders plan to work with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to launch a public transport study. South Boston will be responsible for overseeing the study and then implementing the recommendations. The study is expected to be completed by December. Texas In 2019, the city of Fort Worth initiated a study seeking ways to increase transit’s role in the city’s overall transportation system. The study identified priority corridors and recommended high-capacity transit capabilities. Trinity Metro and the city of Fort Worth received a FTA grant for work on a design plan. Once the first phase is completed, the city will move forward with other infrastructure and economic development improvements. California Caltrans has awarded $34 million in state and federal funds to cities, counties, tribes, and transit agencies to improve the state’s transportation network. The grant funding — including $25 million – will be used to plan sustainable transportation projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve the state highway system, enhance access to safe walkways and bikeways, and increase natural disaster preparedness. Georgia The Northeast Georgia Inland Port will receive a $46.87 million grant to build an inland container facility that will provide linkage to the Port of Savannah by a 324-mile rail line. The funding comes from a U.S. Department of Transportation grant that was announced recently. The new facility, which will include six railroad tracks, will be at the Gateway Industrial Centre north of Gainesville. With massive amounts of funding flowing to transit authorities, it is incumbent on contractors to gather additional information about upcoming opportunities in regions of interest. Ever-increasing numbers of transportation projects can be found throughout the U.S. Mary Scott Nabers is president and CEO of Strategic Partnerships Inc., a business development company specializing in government contracting and procurement consulting throughout the U.S. Her recently released book Inside the Infrastructure Revolution: A Roadmap for Building America is a handbook for contractors, investors and the public at large seeking to explore how public-private partnerships or joint ventures can help finance their infrastructure projects. Visit http://maryscottnabers.com/ for more information.