Booming intercity bus industry brings benefits and regulatory questions

By Bill Holloway

Levels of intercity bus service, which are measured by the total number of daily scheduled operations, declined between 1960 and 2006. In recent years, however, it has been growing rapidly—far outpacing the growth of air and rail service (seat-miles) and car travel according to 2012 and 2013 year-in-review reports from DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute. Much of the recent growth has been driven by new discount city-to-city services, such as Megabus. However, long-established lines like Greyhound, the nation’s largest intercity bus company, have also expanded service. Intercity bus company profits are up across the board.

Daniel Vock’s recent article in Stateline notes that although states have the responsibility to enforce federal safety laws for buses that travel in more than one state, they take very different approaches. States received a total of nearly $165 million in federal funds for motor carrier safety and enforcement activities in 2013, but the way they spend these funds varies widely, with some spending almost all of the money inspecting trucks. There is even more variation when it comes to buses that do not cross state lines and thus are not subject to federal rules. In addition, SAFETEA-LU—the federal transportation bill of 2005—included a requirement that inspections of passenger vehicles be conducted at places where the motor carrier is making a planned stop, unless there is an “imminent or obvious safety hazard.” As a Los Angeles Daily News editorial recently noted, even if a bus company is on a watch list for safety violations this provision prohibits law enforcement officials from pulling them over on the road to conduct inspections.

The variation in how states enforce bus safety standards and the federal prohibition against on-road inspections of buses raise serious safety concerns. According to Peter Pantuso, President and CEO of the American Bus Association, and Henry Jasny, Vice President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, these issues make it much harder to identify bus operators that flout safety rules. Unscrupulous companies can locate in states where enforcement is lax, and smaller, more informal operators can easily change their pickup and drop off locations to avoid the threat of inspections.

Standardizing inspection rules across states and repealing the blanket federal prohibition against on-road inspections would increase the safety of intercity buses by ensuring that they are all held to the same standards. As these buses carry more and more people each year, the need to ensure proper safety standards is increasingly urgent.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.