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Dartmouth Coach eyes August restart, seeks funding from state

  • Before boarding Dartmouth Coach, William Legge, the 10th Earl of Dartmouth, says goodbye to friend Kathy Rines, of, Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in Hanover. ((Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 7/30/2020 9:56:34 PM
Modified: 7/30/2020 9:56:32 PM

LEBANON — A private bus company that is a crucial link transporting Dartmouth College students to campus from Boston and New York and taking Upper Valley residents to Logan airport hopes to resume some service in August, pending word about state aid given the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bus line Dartmouth Coach and its sister company Concord Coach Lines are waiting word from the office of Gov. Chris Sununu to approve release of $4 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding to help the bus lines resume service in the Upper Valley and New Hampshire in August.

The funding request came as part of an overall request of $7.5 million in emergency relief funds submitted by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation for Sununu’s approval this week and unanimously endorsed by the eight-member Legislative Advisory Board on Wednesday.

The funds, which were also requested on behalf of C&J Bus Lines in Portsmouth, “are critical to enabling these private, N.H.-based transit (companies) to resume services and to recover to their pre-pandemic economic vitality,” DOT Commissioner Victoria Sheehan said in July 10 letter to Sununu’s office.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Dartmouth Coach and other bus lines suspended operations in March as the coronavirus pandemic worsened, and Dartmouth Coach’s 17 buses have been idled ever since, with several of them parked at the bus line’s facility off Route 120 in Lebanon. Before the pandemic, the family-owned, Concord-based operator ran 10 trips daily between the Upper Valley and Boston and up to three trips daily between the Upper Valley and New York City.

With a stop by the Hopkins Center, it is also a major method of transportation for Dartmouth students, and the college has plans to allow half of its 4,400 undergraduates back on campus in September. A “frequently asked questions” page on the college website asks: “How will students get to campus if the Dartmouth Coach is not running?” with the answer being, “Public transportation has been limited because of state pandemic guidelines. We will know more about public transportation options later this summer and will provide updates to students who will be here in the fall as soon as we have them.”

Benjamin Blunt, vice president of Dartmouth Coach and Concord Coach, said the company is aiming to resume reduced bus service in August, although he said he couldn’t yet provide a specific date because they are still working on protocols and making sure the buses comply with federal and state requirements.

“There are still approvals needed and internal work to be done before we can announce the resumption of service,” Blunt said Thursday, describing August as “our objective” to resume service.

Sheehan’s letter drew a bleak financial picture for the four bus lines seeking funding, which is administered by the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery. GOFERR, in turn, received $39 million through the Federal Transit Administration and from the CARES Act.

Sheehan said the four bus companies collectively carry more than 1.5 million passengers annually and in 2019 generated $40 million in revenue; before COVID-19, the four firms projected they would generate $42 million in 2020. But between March and July they lost a total of $16 million in ticket sales as a result of suspending service, which, along with $4 million in expenses, has led to a loss of $20 million over the five-month period.

“Once these (companies) resume service, currently planned for the August 2020 timeframe, passenger fare revenues are initially estimated to be 20% of pre-pandemic levels through the end of the calendar year.” Sheehan said in her letter to Sununu.

Nonetheless, the request for $7.5 million in relief funding will allow the bus lines “to recover only a small portion of their total net losses,” said Sheehan.

The $4 million of the $7.5 million requested for Dartmouth Coach and Concord Coach Lines would be split roughly evenly among the two bus lines, which are owned and operated by the Blunt family.

Blunt declined to detail passenger levels and financial losses at the two bus lines, but said 52 of the company’s 55 employees have been furloughed or laid off. The company did receive a loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program but will be required to repay that loan — instead of converting the funds into a grant — under the terms with which the money was provided.

When bus service does resume, Blunt said, expectations of fewer passengers for Dartmouth Coach will curtail trips between the Upper Valley and Boston from 10 daily to six daily, and service between the Upper Valley and New York City will be reduced to a single round trip on Fridays and Sundays.

“New York City will be significantly scaled back,” he said.

Passengers on Dartmouth Coach can expect a different riding experience once the buses begin rolling again due to social distancing protocols.

Blunt said the buses will accommodate 34 passengers compared with the normal 51-seat capacity and that “plexiglass dividers” have been installed between the seats. In addition to other changes made on the buses and cleaning required between service, Blunt estimated it costs about $3,000 to bring each bus back into service, including air filters, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer equipment, signage and the dividers.

Although $4 million might sound like a hefty sum to be shared by the two bus lines, Blunt said the company could still end up losing money in 2020, given five months of lost revenue and the low passenger levels expected once service resumes.

“This support is really meaningful. It allows us to get back on the road without accelerating losses,” Blunt said. “We are not going to make a big profit off it but it will keep us on life support.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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