Friday, October 30, 2020
Suzanne RohdeSuzanne Rohde Roughly 3,800 travel, tour, and motorcoach entities comprise the American Bus Association (ABA) membership, and it falls to Senior VP for Government Affairs & Policy Suzanne Rohde to keep them apprised of the association’s legislative outreach and activities—to say nothing of her role in orchestrating those efforts in the first place. And if you’ve ever checked out the “Working for You” tab on ABA’s website (buses.org), you’ve benefited from her diligence, too, as Rohde curates the content available to not only ABA members but also any industry member looking for everything from learning more about current regulatory issues to catching up on the monthly Government Affairs and Policy Update.

Chauffeur Driven recently caught up with Rohde, who shared the most salient points anyone operating in both the luxury ground transportation and the bus and motorcoach sides of the industry absolutely needs to know, both right now and for the year to come.


Chauffeur Driven: The lead up to ELDs was a concern for several years. Now that they are being used in fleets, can you give us an update on any issues still surrounding them?
Suzanne Rohde: The advent of ELDs basically following on the heels of automatic onboarding recording devices (AOBRDs) was a step forward in this environment. Although a good thing, I believe everybody is struggling with the broader application of technology to help us do our jobs. It made perfect sense to head in that direction, both in terms of technology developments and vehicles, as well as doing administrative tasks. But on the trucking side, there appeared to be broader resistance to the change than on the bus side—that’s not to say that the bus and motorcoach side didn’t have a number of concerns about the cost, investment, and training, particularly for smaller operators. Some of the continuing challenges are particularly with drivers, in terms of ensuring they’re fully prepared to operate ELDs so that if they are stopped, they can talk with enforcement officials about what type of equipment they have and how it works, to be clear that it is an ELD versus an AOBRD, and help the official connect to their system to verify both the data and how it works. The driver’s role in the ELD process is a critical one; it’s just going to be a matter of training for whatever system the operator’s driving with.

As we come upon the December phase-out of AOBRDs, we have companies that have not made the conversion to an ELD system yet, and they’ll face some challenges. Our best advice: Don’t wait for the last minute. You will need to transition to an ELD by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA’s) deadline, as the rule requires AOBRD grandfathering for a limited amount of time before you must move on to ELDs.

With regard to ELD providers, although listed on the Registry, some companies may not be fully compliant with the regulatory requirements. The bottom line: Companies need be vigilant and thoughtful when choosing a system. Also, connectivity issues appear to be still challenging with some systems. With a major shift like this, it’s not surprising to be facing these kinds of issues in the early stages.

Most recently, Canada has adopted ELD requirements, and the biggest difference we noted so far is the certification. In the U.S., it’s a self-certification process for the manufacturers and service providers; on the Canadian side, it’s more of a government certification. Whether one approach is better than the other is hard to say. On the one hand, the government doesn’t want to look as if it’s endorsing one type of technology or business over another, and going through a government certification process can take some time. But on the other, it could have eliminated some of the issues we’re facing, like finding out the hard way that you went with a company that’s not really compliant.

CD:With the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in its final year, has it ultimately been effective?
SR: I have to say yes and no. The FAST Act is a broad piece of legislation. Congress does this every four or five years, and it’s expanded from being just a highway bill to covering a lot of different areas of oversight and governance under the Department of Transportation’s jurisdiction.

Several of its provisions are important to our members, one being the restriction on enforcement officials from stopping carriers en-route to conduct inspections, without an apparent safety issue. This is important, in terms of ensuring motor carriers of passengers can compete on the same level with other passenger modes of transportation. As well, there was also a FAST Act provision that directs tolling facilities to treat transit and over-the-road buses the same, in terms of what they charge for tolls. But this is a little more challenging to see implemented and complied with—and we are having trouble determining whether tolling facilities are complying with it.

The FAST Act was also important because it provided the funding for programs managed by FMCSA and others within the Department of Transportation. But funding the bill, in general, has always been an issue and a challenge when we’re looking at reauthorization. The FAST Act didn’t really address the underlying issue of the Highway Trust Fund shortfall, and its use as the primary funding mechanism for surface infrastructure, which is to say fuel taxes. So we, like many others interested in infrastructure, would like to see that addressed. We are staying engaged with Capitol Hill at this time because the FAST Act termination date is in 2020, and there are several legislative efforts underway. The process will be interesting, to see how the next surface transportation bill evolves.

CD:The federal infrastructure bill seems to have stalled, even with many endorsements, including from ABA. Any thoughts on where it will go in the coming months?
SR: So you have the FAST Act, the routine surface transportation bill that basically re-authorizes spending and collection of taxes for the trust fund, as well as our oversight agencies—Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), FMCSA, and so on. At the same time there’s been a lot of broad talk about infrastructure in this country falling into disrepair, and what to do about it.

Talking about an infrastructure package is a little more amorphous because a lot of the discussion went beyond highways and bridges into airports and broadband. It was a popular topic in the last election and there’s still a lot of interest in it. But everything comes down to funding: Where are you going to obtain it, what is the funding mechanism? There’s no easy answer, and, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, finding the money is an issue. If you can’t find it, then you really can’t talk about a bill. There’s lots of ideas for and interest in, fixing our infrastructure and the timing, because the FAST Act’s up in 2020. Whether or not we should combine these two efforts or if it should just be an infrastructure package that goes beyond surface transportation, those are big questions that have been circulating in the past year. And I’ve been watching to see if these processes would converge.

It’s really about solving the funding problem. We are pleased to see Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) and his committee moving a legislation to reauthorize the surface transportation programs in advance of the FAST Act’s termination—but until they solve that money problem, which no one has done yet, I think the likelihood of any kind of major infrastructure package, or looking at a full reauthorization bill, is slim, particularly coming into an election year.

CD:It’s no secret that we’re heading into a contentious presidential election cycle. Do you think this will benefit or hurt ABA’s advocacy efforts?
SR: It is contentious. When you have these elections, when it’s so close to power changing hands, it makes for a very difficult environment when it comes to compromise, negotiation, and legislative action.

The bus industry moves all people. We’re not Democrat or Republican: We are pro-transportation, pro-infrastructure, and pro-small businesses. We hope to have leadership interested in securing the strongest transportation system possible, and who recognize we are a vital link for the transportation network.
"The FAST Act was also important because it provided the funding for programs managed by FMCSA and others within the Department of Transportation. But funding the bill, in general, has always been an issue ..."
We’ve made progress, in terms of building support for the industry. We definitely have our supporters and we’ve taken a lot of time and effort—particularly since I joined the ABA in 2015—to really make our presence known in Washington, educating them about who we are and the role we play, whether it be from a transportation, travel, security, or emergency management aspect, and I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made. We certainly have a lot of strong relationships on Capitol Hill, but there are larger issues at play and many competing interests. From where the bus industry stands, I like to think our federal officials recognize and acknowledge the vital role we play; however, it is our job to help fill any “education gaps.” We will continue to build our relationships, and reach out on behalf of our industry.

CD:Are autonomous and electric vehicles impacting the motorcoach industry to any degree?
SR: Our equipment has undergone many advances, with braking, lane-departure-warning systems, and collision-avoidance systems, but we would be considered more in the highly automated vehicle category rather than being fully autonomous vehicles. There are various initiatives and pilots out there: One of our Canadian members is beta testing autonomous small vehicles up in Canada, on a closed-circuit route, and they’re allowing people to get on and off unassisted. However, I think we’re still a ways away, and we will be one of the last modal operations to become fully autonomous because we move people, our standard of safety is that much higher. If and when—and I think it’s more of a when—these start becoming deployed, you may see it in the transit environment before the motorcoach environment.

With regard to electric vehicles, the technology has not advanced enough with the battery systems to really accommodate the intercity types of movements with our buses. I know this area is being explored, there are a lot of efforts and interest in this, but I believe these advancements are being made more on the transit side right now. From an operator perspective, cleaner systems, less maintenance, and not dealing with fuel costs would be enormous. So there’s definitely an appetite for it, I just don’t know if the technology’s there yet.

One of the issues we are engaged in, though, is data with regard to autonomous vehicles. As these vehicles are maturing, they are generating more and more data. Traditionally, if you own the vehicles and/or you own the fleet, then you also own the data generated by your vehicles. But manufacturers are increasingly seeing the value of controlling this data or restricting access to it. They’re appreciating what can be done or the value of it; we’re very concerned by this interest, because if you as the owner no longer control the data, it can limit your options, or it could interfere with, say, your maintenance or logging activities. We are partnering in coalition with other entities to focus on owners’ privacy and data-access considerations. The enforcement community is very concerned about this, too.

CD:What other issues should be on the radar of motorcoach operators, especially those in luxury ground transportation?
SR: We always have the ongoing driver shortage as one of our top issues, so the FMCSA is looking at opening things up for potential drivers from the ages of 18-21.

Overall, compliance: We just had our Bus Industry Safety Council (BISC) meeting, which is a free event we hold twice a year, once at our Marketplace in January then outside Baltimore in the summer, plus a mini-compliance session we do with the California Bus Association. BISC had about 200 participants this year and a lot of great educational sessions—but one thing I walked away from it thinking about was how all of our government partners are there, either speaking or at least attending. The Department of Defense talked about their transportation office, the Department of Justice talked about ADA issues, and we had the Department of Transportation’s FMCSA safety people talking about what’s going on from an administrative/regulatory perspective. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the EPA, OSHA, and FEMA were all there, too.

Our industry has a great deal of federal oversight to contend with, but it’s really impressive how we can all work together at an event like BISC. All the government entities come and work with us because these are across-the-board issues, which is why it’s critical for those folks getting into the bus world to come. We don’t charge, you don’t even have to be an ABA member. We do this to assist our members and industry participants in general, because we want our industry to be safe, for companies to do what they’re supposed to do on the road—which is always a priority for ABA.    [CD0819]