Newly introduced Senate legislation lists school buses among the passenger transportation modes that would be eligible to receive new economic relief grants to pay employee wages and costs during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a Democrat, and Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican, introduced the $10 billion Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services Act of 2020 (CERTS Act). The U.S. Department of Transportation would be required to use at least half of those funds for grants to help companies maintain employee pay, leave and benefits through Dec. 31, plus recall or rehire any employees that were laid off, furloughed or terminated because of service interruptions caused by COVID-19.
Additionally, funds could be used to acquire services and equipment, including personal protective equipment “and other measures needed to protect workers and customers from COVID-19,” as well as to cover existing capital equipment and facilities, including rent, leases, insurance and debt service.
“We wanted to ensure it was a bipartisan initiative, but it still will be a heavy lift to get this done because of all of these competing interests that need assistance due to the pandemic,” commented Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), a lobby for private school bus contractors.
NSTA joins the American Bus Association, the United Motocoach Association, the Passenger Vessel Association, and the Amalgamated Transit Union in supporting the CERTS Act.
Macysyn interpreted the legislation to mean that the funds would benefit private contractors over school districts, as eligibility also hinges on not already receiving funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27.
“We found that the distribution stream (Title I) for CARES Act funding was really not compatible in providing a system of checks and balances,” he explained. “[In] layman’s terms, Section 18006 was a condition of funding, but through [the] Title I funding stream it went automatically to districts based on a formula. The long and short [is] any new relief had to go directly to contractors and not funneled through districts.”
Other eligible providers include passenger-carrying marine vessels, commercial and inter-city buses, charter and tour service providers, and “any other transportation service company subject to regulation by the [U.S.] Department of Transportation” that is deemed appropriate.
To be eligible, a provider must have been in operation on March 1 and would have to demonstrate “significant revenue loss as direct or indirect result of the novel coronavirus,” the CERTS Act states. They must also have 500 or fewer employees and not be a subsidiary of or controlled by another organization that does not employ more than 500 employees.
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Individual CERTS Act grant totals would be awarded based on an estimated 12-month revenue and cash flow, the amount of debt owed on major equipment, if any, and other sources of federal assistance received, if any.
Transportation providers could not receive a grant award that when added to any other federal assistance — such as the CARES Act, Paycheck Protection Program and the Health Care Enhancement Act — does not exceed the total amount of revenue earned during the 2019 calendar year.
If passed and enacted into law, the CERTS Act could not increase projected federal deficits, as stipulated by the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010.