While the signing of the surface transportation bill (MAP-21) in July is bringing stability to the transit industry as they move forward with capital projects over the next two years, it also focused on the commercial vehicle industry in a way that has never been seen before.

The bill mandated  that an easy-to-use grading system, similar to those use for restaurants in several cities, be created to make it easier for consumers to make decisions when hiring a commercial company. The legislation also created a multi-tiered motorcoach safety program, both inside and outside the vehicle, and required public and private entities forge partnerships to solve transportation issues in communities around the nation.

“We got several things in MAP-21 that we asked for,” says Clyde Hart Jr., sr. VP, government affairs and policy, for the American Bus Association (ABA). “Not everything, obviously, it is legislation. In this case, though, we are pretty happy with the results.”

“To me this is the perfect example of how Congress should work,” adds United Motorcoach Association (UMA) President/CEO Victor Parra. “This was a real partisan decision. It involved compromise and give and take, and that’s what it takes to govern this country.”

“Grading system”
One highly publicized aspect of MAP-21 was the late addition of Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s (D-NY) proposal mandating the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to create a simple and understandable rating system that allows passengers to compare the safety performance of each bus company and to annually reevaluate carriers that serve primarily urban areas with high passenger loads, such as New York.

The bill also requires the U.S Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) to improve the accessibility of the ratings to the public and to consider requirements that ratings be posted on buses, at terminals and at all points of sale. Schumer is urging the FMCSA to make that safety rating plan a letter grade system, similar to that used in restaurants in several cities around the U.S.

“Bus companies will no longer be able to mask poor safety records, and consumers are now able to see, before they purchase a ticket, whether the bus they are considering getting on is a safe one,” Schumer said in a statement following the passage of the bill. “This is a significant victory for consumers and will serve as a major incentive for operators to get serious about safety, or risk losing passengers.”

Schumer’s bill has for the most part been well-received by the industry.

“We’re all for anything that makes it easier for customers and consumers to find good operators, and if you tried to use the FMCSA’s system, it could be daunting sometimes,” says Hart.

Schumer’s legislation was proposed in the wake of two highly publicized accidents, including one last March when a low-cost carrier heading from Connecticut to Chinatown crashed between the Bronx and Westchester, killing 15 passengers.    

“It could ultimately be a valuable tool to help quality companies sell their service, rather than being treated more as a commodity, and the competition being most strongly on rates,” says Jack Wigley, president/CEO of Mesa, Ariz.-based All Aboard America! “The key is that the information on the site be accurate and kept current.”

Under the terms of MAP-21, rulemaking for the so-called “Grading System” is set to be completed by October 2013. What is unclear is how this will impact the FMCSA’s Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) program, or how that system would somehow be combined with the newly proposed program.

“CSA has done a better job in collecting data and raising awareness about safety, but the current CSA is not an end-all solution to assess the safety fitness of a carrier. The safety assessment of a commercial carrier has to be more than just a few data points during a very limited time,” says Jared Stancil, executive VP, Nashville, Tenn.-based Anchor Trailways. “To be able to provide a complete safety assessment, the proposed grading system will have to address the many variables in a motor carrier’s operations, the various interpretations of current and future laws, and require a hands-on approach when assigning a grade.”

“A lot of people were very supportive of the grading system, and on the surface, it seems like a very straightforward and easy way for consumers to evaluate the safety fitness of a carrier,” adds Parra. “Let’s just wait and see how it plays out.”[PAGEBREAK]Multi-tiered safety approach
MAP-21 also creates a multi-tiered approach toward improving the safety of motorcoaches, both from the inside and the outside.

To start, the bill requires that all carriers applying for operating authority must prove an understanding of federal rules by completing a written examination. Although the “Pre-Authorization Safety Audit” was successfully defeated, new entrants are also required to undergo a safety audit within 120 days of receiving operating authority.

The new bill also prohibits a motor carrier applicant from applying for new authority for three years if they are found to have been previously been declared unfit. It further allows the Secretary of Transportation to require a registration update within 30 days if a carrier changes addresses, contact information, officers, process agents or other essential information.

“MAP-21 does good to limit the exposure of new or reincarnated commercial carriers,” says Stancil. “The written proficiency exam and safety fitness exam are good examples of trying to put safeguards in place before a potential rogue operator can operate for an extended period of time.”

Penalties for operating an unfit passenger coach company have been boosted to $25,000 for each violation. The bill also raises the penalties for evasion of regulations and opens subsequent violations to criminal prosecution. Additionally, MAP-21 authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to take more drastic measures, including impounding the entire fleet, for repeat offenders.

“One of the things that we really like is that this does a good job of getting to carriers that operate at a very low level of safety — the repeat offenders, the troublemakers, the folks that never should have been in the business in the first place,” says Dan Ronan, sr. director of communications for the ABA. “The bill also allows the government to seize motorcoaches from companies that have been declared an imminent hazard. They can actually put the buses behind a fence and lock them up.”

The bill also requires states that place a passenger carrier out of service to provide reasonable and secure temporary shelter and accommodations for passengers in transit. Regulations promulgated under this section must include the consideration of public safety, protection of passengers and cargo, inconvenience to passengers and security of the vehicle.

As for the safety of the actual motorcoaches, MAP-21 states that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) must create regulations requiring seat belts to be installed in motorcoaches at each designated seat not later than one year from the bill’s passage, with the rule being put into effect two years from then. The industry is currently waiting for seat belt rulemaking that was already set to be unveiled some time this year.

“It really gives NHTSA the time to get the job done,” says Parra. “There is adequate time, as well as a real emphasis on research, without being terribly prescriptive.”

As for retrofitting motorcoaches, NHTSA will assess the feasibility, benefits and costs on the application of the seat belts or anti-ejection countermeasures provision to existing motorcoaches. NHTSA must report to Congress on the assessment in two years.

Additionally, in no later than two years, MAP-21 says the U.S. DOT must prescribe regulations that address roof strength and crush resistance, and further directs U.S. DOT to consider anti-ejection safety countermeasures (window glazing), rollover crash avoidance, tire pressure monitoring systems and tire performance standards.

“It is good that MAP-21 has finally given a defined timetable for some of the ‘Big Issues,’ including seat belts and roof strength,” says Stancil. “We have been discussing these issues for many years, and our industry is ready to move forward and show our customers and passengers that we support improved safety standards.”

Finally, MAP-21 directs the U.S. DOT to ensure research programs are carried out concurrently and grants authority for it to combine rulemakings into a single rulemaking encompassing all aspects. Considerations must include whether each added aspect contributes to safety; benefits of the seat belt rulemaking; and avoiding duplicative benefits, costs and countermeasures.

“I am always in favor of regulations that will truly make our industry safer, as long as the regulation was well thought out, properly implemented and will truly make a positive impact on the issues that drove the need for the regulation to begin with,” says Wigley. “I am not a manufacturer, but think they are already aware of these pending issues and have been working on them already, so a two-year window seems appropriate.”

Other safety measures include developing standards for fire prevention and mitigation and the establishment of the National Drug and Alcohol Test Results Clearinghouse.[PAGEBREAK]Public-private partnerships
MAP-21 does not change the Charter Service rule or school bus protections. What it does do is require public and private entities to work together to solve transportation issues around the nation in numerous ways.

The bill directs the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to provide technical assistance to public transit, upon their request, on practices and methods to best utilize private providers of public transportation and educate public transit on laws and regulations that impact private providers of public transportation.

“From our vantage point, it opens up some great opportunities for us to work closely with the public sector to address some of these transportation challenges around the country,” says Parra. “It really gets the private sector much more engaged.”

After one year of enhancement, the Government Accountability Office is directed to prepare a comprehensive report on the effect of contracting out public transportation operations and administrative functions on cost, availability and level of service; efficiency and quality of service; and other considerations.

The bill also dictates that public transits cannot deny reasonable access for a private intercity or charter transportation operator to federally funded public transportation facilities, including intermodal facilities, park-and-ride lots, and bus-only highway lanes. Transits may consider capacity requirements and the extent to which access would be detrimental to existing public transportation services, however.

“For the first time, the motorcoach industry has a seat at the table in regard to transportation planning, which is one of the things we’ve pushed for,” says ABA’s Hart. “Basically, when transportation facilities, depots and passenger facilities were being discussed or built, the motorcoach industry was never part of the mix. At best we’d get called after the facility was built. MAP-21 changes that.”

Both the folks at UMA and ABA believe these changes to the transit title of MAP-21 will have huge implications on the industry, with the ball now being in operators’ court to take action.

“We are telling [our members] that they, as business owners, have to be more aware of what’s going on in transportation, both at the federal level and the state and local level,” says Hart. “If you are now given a seat at the table in the building of transportation facilities, you have to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Parra adds that beginning to build those relationships now will pay huge dividends in the future.

“It would be much better if everyone agreed this is the way to go and started working together, as opposed to having it forced down the throats of those in the transit [industry],” he says. “[The motorcoach industry] has to begin building that relationship now with the transits, so that when the rulemaking is completed, [working together] will just be an extension of an existing relationship.”