East End Transit

Why have bus lines to Mexico bloomed all across the East End? Maybe because it's a family affair.

It's six o'clock on a Thursday evening, and in the East End, the buses are getting ready to roll. Crowds of travelers and their families are packing into a handful of bus stations that line a seven-block area on Harrisburg Boulevard between Wayside and 75th Street. They're unloading suitcases and packages at the terminals of El Expreso, Adame, Pegasso, Los Primos and Autobuses Monterrey for overnight trips. And only blocks away from the Harrisburg-Wayside concentration, even more passengers are boarding even more buses operated by Lucano, Garcia, El Regio and Los Chavez.

Buses are rumbling all over the East End. They are parked in small squadrons in vacant lots on Harrisburg. They are being overhauled in small back-street shops. They bear new coats of paint and the logos and names of their owners. They pull into stations converted from used car lots and gas stations and auto-repair shops. Their services are advertised on Hispanic radio and television, and their prices and services are boasted about in the pages of La Subasta, a Spanish-language simulacrum of the Greensheet.

Almost all of the bus passengers are Hispanic, and the majority are traveling to see family. Though most of the tickets they buy are for Monterrey and Mexico City and San Luis Potosi and other Mexican cities, some travelers are also headed to North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

The bus operators pride themselves on personal, reliable service, with a family orientation. No drinking or smoking is allowed on these buses or in the stations. Some of the operators will even pick up and deliver passengers to their doors.

In part, the rumble of the buses is a reminder that Houston is more and more a city with a Spanish lilt to its language. But the bus companies are also part of an economic revitalization of the East End. When the gigantic Sears operation at Harrisburg and Wayside closed several years ago, it seemed as if the economic heart had been torn out of the neighborhood. But the shopping center has been revitalized. Fast-food chains are moving in among the peluquerias and taquerias, and even Greyhound is considering opening an East End substation to get a bigger share of the business. The city of Houston is also studying how to deal with the growth of these companies, perhaps by building an East End terminal that would pull them all together.

But while others plan, the bus business of Houston's East End continues to boom. During the upcoming holidays, the Anglo radio and television news media will no doubt run the standard stories about traffic jams on the interstates and at the airports. But there will be another surge in transportation as well, that most likely won't be reported. All over the East End, bus operators are expanding their fleets, buying or leasing more buses, bartering and dealing among themselves, preparing for a surge in operations. That surge is in part seasonal. Yet it's also something of a sign. A change is rumbling along the streets of the East End, and it gives no indication of slowing down.

A decade ago, if someone had driven down Harrisburg looking for buses, he would have been disappointed. The bus terminals that dot the boulevard didn't exist then. It wasn't until the '90s that business boomed. All told, as many as 100 buses a day now leave and enter a dozen or so East End bus companies. Though that's still fewer than come and go at the Greyhound Terminal on Main -- Greyhound's numbers are closer to 170 daily -- the Hispanic bus business is growing, while the trend for other long-distance bus travel has been headed downward (with the occasional upward blip, admittedly) for a long time. With revenue estimated at $30 to $40 million a year, Houston's Hispanic bus companies have made a major collective impact on the business.

Ten years ago, Hispanic travelers looking for cheap transportation often traveled by van. Many of the van companies were uninsured, and some of the operators were unscrupulous. There were cases in which drivers made passengers chip in for bribes at the U.S./Mexican border, or broke down and abandoned people by the side of the road. But some of the van operators had their sights set on something bigger, and after running successful van operations, they leveraged up to buses. Many of these companies are small, family-owned operations, and they aim to ride the surge of Hispanic immigration to Houston.

It should come as no surprise that Houston, a center of entrepreneurial energy, has attracted people who are willing to improvise a service in a heavily regulated industry. Many of these bus entrepreneurs dodged regulations to get into the van business. And some of the bus operators may still operate in defiance of, or only partial compliance with, the law.

Ron Havellar, regional programs coordinator of the Federal Highway Administration, says that the government has closed some operators who were blatantly illegal, but that enforcement is difficult and resources are limited. He adds that his office's approach is to try to bring operators into compliance rather than try to force people out of business with heavy-handed enforcement.

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