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Tri-State bus sends message in D.C.

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GALENA–Between March and the end of June, Tri-State Travel had more than 50 bus trips scheduled with high schools, colleges and bank clubs. Hundreds of hours went into planning those trips. Payments were made to outside vendors and schedules were set.

Then, the pandemic struck. All those tours have been cancelled. Tri-State’s fleet of motor coaches is grounded with much uncertainty about how and when the 80-year-old family business will be able to fully resume operations. They’ve reached out to vendors for refunds, but because of closures, it’s been a constant struggle. Some have gone out of business. Tri-State is left in a bad position.

The Galena-based company certainly isn’t alone. Motorcoach businesses across the country are hurting as business has all but dried up.

Last week, Andrew and Corey Hillard joined fellow motorcoach operators from across the United States when they delivered a message to lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

The Hillards’ Tri-State Travel motorcoach was one of 1,008 buses that descended on the nation’s capital to remind Congress that motor coaches were left out of the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill, the only form of transportation excluded.

“They forgot about us,” said Andrew, noting funding was included in the packages for airlines, Amtrak and transit agencies. “I don’t know why we weren’t thought of.”

Tri-State was eligible for the Payroll Protection Program loans, but that funding is, as the name implies, for payroll and not for refunds for cancelled trips.

The “Motor coaches Rolling for Awareness” rally took place for several hours on Wednesday, May 13, as motorcoach drivers made a loop around the National Mall, garnering the attention of national news outlets.

Multiple motorcoach associations were represented in the grassroots effort that included 415 companies–out of a total of 3,000–from all 50 states.

The industry is seeking $15 billion in grant money and low-interest government-backed loans to help weather the storm, Andrew said.

The Hillards left Monday morning from Galena, stopping for the night in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. They made the rest of the trip to Washington on Tuesday, spending that evening in Arlington, Va. On Wednesday morning, 875 miles from Galena, they arrived early in Washington and were able to park on the Smithsonian campus to organize with other motorcoach operators from the main staging area at Union Station.

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The rally began at 10:30 a.m. The Hillards participated for about three hours before heading out for the return journey.

“It was just unreal to see our industry come together like that,” said Andrew of the peaceful rally. “It was pretty overwhelming.”

Joining with state tourism organizations and other partners, the goal was to send a message.

In addition to motor coaches, many of which had decals on the sides of the buses offering statistics and demanding action, there was a smaller trucker rally taking place in Washington as well.

Fifty of the buses were decaled with each state represented, and there was one with Washington, D.C., decals.

The Tri-State plans to participate came together rather quickly, Corey explained. The rally was delayed a week to ensure Congress was in session. When they decided to go, Signcraft had the decals ready to go within 24 hours.

Andrew said of the 36,000 motor coaches across the country, 91 percent of them are parked during the pandemic, with 90 percent of workers laid off. Tri-State is hopeful that some shuttle business will resume in early July, and there’s hope of shuttle work for government training. In Galena and the Quad Cities, Tri-State staff is greatly reduced with shortened business hours.

And it’s not just the motorcoach industry that’s affected, said Andrew. There’s a domino effect to restaurants, theme parks, hotels and other businesses where motorcoach operators spend money every year transporting passengers.

The rally isn’t the only activism in which the Hillards have participated. They’ve sent letters to Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, asking for their support and assistance.

Tri-State is looking to the future and making plans for what the motorcoach industry might look like when buses are able to roll again. The motor coaches have always been cleaned each night, Corey said, but they will now go a step further, using a disinfectant fogger to kill coronavirus.

Working on government contracts now, there will be social distancing on the coaches, with a maximum of 26 passengers instead of 56. Hand sanitizer will be used and tour goers, drivers and guides will wear masks. They’ll follow all guidelines to do what they can to keep everyone safe.

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