Salt Lake Express

Salt Lake Express and other local bus companies are struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic as Americans are encouraged to not travel.

On one mid-March day, a Salt Lake Express official says the company refunded around $35,000 due to cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The local transportation industry is in an adverse environment as travel is discouraged to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Salt Lake Express’ scheduled routes have been cut by more than half and bus drivers sometimes take routes with no passengers, according to the company’s Idaho Falls-based public relations official Kathy Pope.

Salt Lake Express now offers three bus rides from Pocatello to Salt Lake City and one from the Gate City to Boise, compared to eight and three respectively before the pandemic.

Despite being an essential business, Salt Lake Express’ revenue is about 15 percent of what it is normally and the company had to lay off around half of its employees, according to Pope.

“We have our bus payments that we still have to make, our insurance payments, all of our payments still due,” Pope said. “It’s scary.”

Pope said the Salt Lake City shuttle service company is not running its charter busing and will likely not resume that sector until July as it is not currently a desired service.

She said charter makes up 30 percent of the business and normally starts to take off at this time with summer approaching.

Salt Lake Express did receive a reprieve in federal funding under the Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed the company to restore some of its workforce.

“The sad part of that is I think a lot of the smaller businesses didn’t get it,” Pope said. “It’s just the medium-sized ones like us. We’re small business in comparison to the United States. But in comparison to Southeast Idaho, we’re one of the bigger businesses.”

Local transportation company Teton Stage Lines has been another beneficiary of the program, but still faces a tough road.

The Idaho Falls company does not offer scheduled routes, so it has five buses in use — all serving Blackfoot School District 55.

Teton Stage Lines owner Donavan Harrington said his buses are being deployed to transport food and homework assignments to Blackfoot students every weekday. He puts a driver and one additional employee on each bus, which also transports school officials.

Harrington has owned the Idaho Falls company since 1994. More than two-thirds of his revenue is gained from transporting students to and from school and teams to sporting events — neither of which is a needed service for the remainder of the school year.

His business serves as the primary busing service for five charter schools in East Idaho, while filling in gaps for other schools.

Harrington has around 35 employees, mostly part-time, and has not laid anyone off or cut hours. When they are not on buses, he has had them do other tasks, such as painting vehicle shop walls and sewing torn bus seats.

He said he is concerned about whether districts will pay what he considers the justified April monetary amount. He said the contracts say they have to pay 50 percent of the day rate for days in which school is cancelled.

He wonders what the future holds with school busing, noting there were three elementary children to a seat when things were running, which is not socially distant.

“What’s it going to look like going forward in August?” Harrington said. “Is it going to be one to every three seats? How are we going to address school busing when they tell us to haul kids into school? I don’t know. I just don’t have the answers. But I’m interested in watching this thing unfold.”

While dealing with loss of school busing revenue, Harrington does not anticipate his motor coach busing will fill the gap. He predicted he will have to wait six to 12 months before it returns to regular demand.

“Nobody wants to go anywhere,” Harrington said. “If the governor were to say today that we’re freed up and you can do whatever you want and turn the whole state loose, it’s going to be a while before people will get into a road coach and want to tour anyplace because they’re going to be concerned the person next to them maybe has COVID.”