MOHEGAN SUN RESORT & CASINO, CT — The new political culture in Washington has not been kind to the chauffeured transportation industry, nor much of the private sector.
Operator-members of the National Limousine Association received a head-spinning rundown last week of all the legislative gremlins making mischief this year as a sweeping, progressive political agenda besieges Washington, D.C.
For one of the industry's main legislative issues, an amendment to the RIDE Act, NLA leaders and their government affairs team are navigating a new Congress, one that is heavily Democratic with only 40 Republican seats in the Senate and a 255-178 split in favor of Democrats in the House, said Louie Perry, vice president of Cornerstone Government Affairs, the NLA's hired lobbying firm on Capitol Hill.
The Real Interstate Driver's Equity Act — passed in 2002 — prohibited airports from charging fees for pre-arranged ground transportation involved in interstate commerce, meaning that its regulatory provisions superseded those of state and local political subdivisions and protected operators from unreasonable fees and levies, Perry explained.
But many airport and port authorities have levied all types of fees anyway, such as looping and AVI/transponder fees, on livery service whether it is interstate or intrastate, thereby violating the intent of the Act. The RIDE Act amendments NLA is seeking aim to address the fee issue. Along with efforts to move legislation, the NLA is trying to get the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration to remind local airport/port bodies that charging fees to single out livery and limousine service violates the federal law.
NLA lobbyists are working on the legislation with Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Sen. David Vitter, R-LA, that clarifies and strengthens the RIDE Act. Lautenberg has re-introduced a bill (S. 1764, the Prevention of Unreasonable Fees Act) to address the NLA concerns. Also, Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL), a subcommittee chair on the Transportation Committee, is pushing the D.O.T. to improve enforcement of current law RIDE Act provisions regarding chauffeured transportation.
NLA President Ron Sorci said today in a statement: “The impact of these abusive fees on ground transportation companies is significant to all and absolutely backbreaking to many. Nearly 70% of chauffeured transportation companies in the U.S. are one-to three-car operators. Forty-four percent of these companies gross $250,000 or less annually. As the prevalence and amount of these abusive fees increases, the ability for companies to retain employees and provide airport prearranged ground transportation decreases. Many operators now face fees at levels too high to be passed on to their customers. If these abusive fees are allowed to continue, there is no doubt that many companies will be forced out of the passenger transportation business entirely.
“Enactment of the Prevention of Unreasonable Fees Act will be of great assistance to thousands of struggling small businesses. We applaud Senator Lautenberg’s action on behalf of American small businesses,” Sorci said.
On other legislative fronts, NLA board member and Dav El CEO Scott Solombrino recounted in horrid detail the decimation of the business travel industry this year, courtesy of government-driven drama and interference. The one-two-three punch of an economic meltdown, restrictive TARP-inspired travel rules, and a new Obama administration “starting off silly with errors” resulted in a business travel and hospitality sector down about 30-40% in revenue for the year, Solombrino said. This, of course, kept many black chauffeured vehicles off the road.
Administration officials spooked the travel sector by badmouthing business conferences in places such as Las Vegas and Orlando, and at high-end luxury resorts nationwide. Businesses and meeting planners panicked, cancelling travel and events. In one of the most egregious examples, Merrill-Lynch actually paid out a $1 million kill fee to cancel a conference at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., Solombrino said.
The ensuing fallout resulted in hundreds of thousands of layoffs in a sector that accounts for one out of every seven jobs in the U.S. Organized pushback from myriad industry groups, such as the National Business Travel Association, forced the administration to back-pedal, apologize, and ease some of the business travel rules connected to TARP funding, Solombrino said. The NBTA helped rewrite the rules, and while the airline, hotel, rental car, and ground transportation industries ended up destroyed for several quarters, there are now signs of a partial recovery, Solombrino said.
“This is an example of how government can go haywire on everyone and not understand the implications of long-term policy changes,” Solombrino said. “Government intervention caused the travel market to collapse.”
The outspoken CEO of Dav El Chauffeured Transportation Network left the audience with this holy industry maxim: “Chauffeured car is not a sin.”
Another diminished but constant threat to chauffeured transportation is the Employee Free Choice Act, a union-driven legislative measure that would abolish free elections among employees in favor of a sneaky card-check provision that would not give business owners equal time. The EFCA appears stymied in Congress for now, thanks to major opposition from business and employer groups that have caused many moderate Blue Dog Democrats to blink.
“This is why I didn’t support the Obama candidacy,” Solombrino said. “This is one of the most outrageous labor proposals in my 32 years in business.” The fundamentally undemocratic legislation from the “Democratic” party is anti-elections, he said. “Obama thinks he was anointed. . . but he was actually elected. . . . A new Republican president will come in four years,” he predicted.
While EFCA seems to be slowed for now, it can get resurrected quickly if people are not paying attention, Solombrino said. He urged NLA members to write letters, send checks, go to association meetings, send e-mails, and remain as active and informed as possible. “If this gets passed, this industry will be very different and we’ll be sitting in a much smaller room,” Solombrino said.
Health care, climate change
On other issues such as health care and climate change, Perry outlined the ongoing debates and conflicts, which at this point appear to be derailing the aspects of legislation most damaging to businesses. However, politicians are famous for regrouping and reworking legislation, which requires constant vigilance on the part of business and transportation interests.
Charter and tour
In the charter and tour industry, there are two pending pieces of legislation — the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act of 2009 and the Buses Act of 2009. The first one would require seat belts, safety countermeasures, and new safety reviews for motorcoaches. The measure draws support from consumer advocacy groups and opposition from the motorcoach industry. The second act would mandate driver examinations and new testing requirements, and provides federal grants for compliance of motorcoach operators and loans for small businesses.
Operator and NLA executive vice president Richard Kane, whose Washington, D.C.-based International Limousine Service runs buses, will be a candidate for nomination to the 15-member Federal Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee, Perry said. This would help bring the voice of chauffeured transportation to the table.
Other proposed bills affecting chauffeurs and drivers include anti-texting and .08% BAC measures. (S 1536/HR3535) would give states two years to impose bans on writing and sending text messages while operating a moving vehicle. States that didn’t meet the mandate would lose 25% of annual federal highway funding. Bans would apply to “a mobile telephone or other portable electronic communication device with which a user engages in a call or writes, sends, or reads a text message using at least one hand.” Voice-activated devices are explicitly exempted.
NLA officials and lobbyists at the session reiterated the need for industry participation and donations. The NLA is pushing a donation plan that asks members to donate at least $10 per month to the NLA’s political action committee.
Perry showed attendees a chart comparing how much money various transportation companies and special interest groups raised in the 2007-2008 election cycle. Near the top of the list, ranked No. 2, was Enterprise Rent-A-Car, with $2,166,110 raised; at the bottom was the NLA, ranked No. 14 with only $12,829 raised. Avis/Budget Group was No. 13 with $42,546 — more than three times the NLA’s raised amount.
NLA information: NLA website
Source: Martin Romjue, LCT Magazine