East End Transit

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

A woman traveling alone had come prepared. Along with her purse, she had carried aboard a large comforter, and when the movie was over -- after an alligator had eaten the bad guy and Sean Connery was embracing his family -- she spread the comforter over her two seats and settled down for a long nap. She would be at the border by two in the morning, and by daybreak, outside would be the streets of Monterrey.

Like many small bus operators, Marco Lucano, 34, started with vans, or as they're known in Spanish, camionetas. The city's Hispanic van operations have garnered a bad reputation -- some of it deserved -- for reckless and uninsured operations. But there are plenty of good operators as well, and a good reputation such as Lucano has enjoyed leads to repeat business. Lucano started his business by going door to door with fliers, seeing if there were anyone who wanted to travel to his native city of San Luis Potosi, about 16 hours distant in the mountains north of Mexico City. After building up a regular clientele, three years ago he and a partner bought a secondhand Eagle bus.

"I paid $25,000 cash money," Lucano said, "but it was too old. I had to rebuild everything: the vinyl, the restroom, the engine, the transmission."

But Lucano Tours was on its way. About the same time that the company bought its first bus, it also bought an old service station at the corner of Telephone Road and Dumble, just behind Austin High School. The waiting room is simply furnished, with an old van seat, folding chairs and French Impressionist prints. The restrooms are clean. There is a small ticket booth, a 30-cup coffeemaker on the counter and a color television on the wall.

Lucano now has 12 buses, many of them only nine or ten years old. A secondhand bus in decent shape costs about $80,000, and like many of the East End operators, Lucano buys his from Hausman Bus Sales, Inc. in Dallas. One of the nation's leading brokers of new and used buses, Hausman buys buses from Greyhound's fleet and others, refurbishes them and then sells them to businessmen such as Lucano. Lately, Lucano has been buying used buses made by MCI, considered a top-of-the-line manufacturer. His passengers, he says, expect the high standards of long-haul Mexican bus lines, with on-board videos, restrooms and reclining chairs as the norm. He hopes eventually to buy a new bus, which can easily cost $350,000.

Maintenance of the buses is critical, says Lucano, because they're what generates the revenue. As soon as a bus comes into his tiny station, a worker starts scrubbing it down with long-handled brushes. Another cleans the interior, taking all the linen from the headrests to the laundry. Good tires are essential. The oil must be changed every 7,000 miles. The engines must be overhauled every 300,000 to 400,000 miles. To take care of this, Lucano has a diesel mechanic on staff, and as evidence of his ability to deal with his own maintenance, one of his buses was backed up to the garage, its rear panel open, revealing the cavity where the engine would be reinstalled. The block, completely stripped down, sat on the garage floor near a new red engine hoist.

Like many other East End bus entrepreneurs, Lucano keeps expenses down by working out of his home. His is a family business. His wife and mother help with the bookkeeping, while his sister runs a station in Austin and his brother runs one in San Luis Potosi. Another relative mans a station in Dallas. A white Lucano bus with a striped logo featuring a dove departs the Telephone Road station seven evenings a week, every day of the year except Christmas. A bus returns to the station from Mexico each afternoon. It takes 16 passengers for a trip to break even, and the weekend trips are the most crowded.

Lucano has been scouting out the possibility of expanding his routes to Nashville and the Raleigh-Durham area. But at the moment the upcoming Christmas rush was foremost on his mind. "I'm going to rent 15 buses," Lucano said. "In two months we can make as much as the other ten months."

Though he's expanded to buses, Lucano isn't completely out of the van business. He just bought a new 15-passenger Ford van, both to pick up passengers and to take people home from the terminal. "We will take people to Pasadena, to north Houston, anywhere within the Beltway 8 area," Lucano said, "and further out for $5 more."

The emphasis is on service. When passengers arrive from San Luis Potosi at 2 p.m., he checks to see if their rides have come for them or if they need a lift. He provides a phone for them to use. When passengers board a bus, he gives them a soft drink and a bag of chips; when they get off, he provides them a fresh pot of coffee or, if it's hot, fresh fruit and sodas.

The rapid growth of small bus operators such as Marco Lucano has not gone unnoticed by the larger bus companies, especially the largest of them all, Greyhound Lines, America's only national carrier. The gross of the Hispanic bus market in this country is in the neighborhood of $200 million, says Ralph Borland, Greyhound's vice president of sales and service; another expert thinks the figure might be half again as much.

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