East End Transit

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

The company's offices are in southwest Houston, and its marketing director, Ricardo Rodriguez, a University of Houston business graduate who has only been with the company for two months, is confident that El Expreso has created a good niche for itself. Though of Hispanic ancestry, Rodriguez didn't grown up taking long-haul buses, and he had his eyes opened as much as any Anglo businessman when he realized that the Mexican standards were much higher than his stereotype of banged-up buses with a chicken flapping out of a window. While he says that El Expreso will stay focused on its long-haul Hispanic clientele, it's also looking at new ventures, such as arranging spring break charters for students to Mexico, or shopping and golfing trips for senior citizens to Matamoros.

With Greyhound and Coach USA moving in on the Hispanic market, it might seem that the small operators are threatened with being overwhelmed by corporate giants. But both Greyhound and Coach USA face a problem: Their passengers headed to Mexico must transfer to a Mexican line when they reach the border. Rodriguez says that working with Mexican bus lines rather than challenging them within their own country is part of a deliberate strategy on the part of El Expreso. But many of the smaller operators such as Lucano and Los Primos keep their south-of-the-border-bound passengers on the same bus, simply changing drivers when they enter Mexico.

The big carriers' strategy of staying out of Mexican bus companies' turf may be less a courtesy to foreign businesses than an attempt to build alliances to head off competition on their own turf. Under NAFTA, Mexican bus operators may eventually be able to operate freely in the United States, and if that happens, their experience and name-brand recognition could well give them an upper hand in competing for Hispanic passengers. Rather than fight the Mexican bus giants, the large American bus firms appear to be more interested in striking deals with them -- deals that would spring from the bus transfers now taking place when passengers cross from Texas into Mexico.

As for the smaller operators, they're banding together. With the aid of a $75,000 federal grant, the city of Houston planning department has been studying ways to help the East End bus industry become an economic development tool. A city consultant, Jose de la Isla, has held several meetings with bus operators to discuss forming a trade association to deal with common interests and problems. A trade association could help the small carriers by providing bulk purchasing power for such items as tires, buses and insurance. The city has also arranged for a class of University of Houston architecture students to design a bus depot for a site on Harrisburg Boulevard, in the heart of the emerging bus district. Such a depot could provide a common ticket counter and repair facilities and offer retail space for food vendors, currency exchanges and other small businesses. The idea is to add to what the East End has already become: a gateway for a certain group of travelers. If further federal aid comes through, an East End bus terminal could be built in the next two or three years.

None of this is new, of course. As city planner Miguel Garcia admits, "All of this has been done in Mexico. In this venture we are the followers, not the leaders."

Not long ago, I took my own trip south. On my journey to Monterrey, my fellow passengers and I went through Mexican customs in Nuevo Laredo at two in the morning. On crowded weekends, the delay at the checkpoint can be as long as four hours if the night crew isn't fully staffed. Some of the East End operators hope that when they form their trade association they can pressure the Mexican government to improve the bottleneck. But on weekdays the delay isn't too bad; I was through and out in an hour and deposited at Nuevo Laredo's bus terminal, where I was to transfer to the Mexican bus line Futura. This transfer can be a bit annoying; passengers must wait a good 45 minutes for the connecting bus.

Still, the progress south to Monterrey was uneventful. The return north on Los Primos, which offers a $30 fare and direct travel on only one bus, was likewise routine. The bus was an olive-drab model, sublet in a deal with a Mexican charter company; the ride was smooth and the engine quiet. At the U.S. border, drug dogs sniffed the luggage, and a customs inspector equipped with a portable drill took off an interior panel, but quickly the bus was on the road again. It arrived in the quiet streets of the East End early in the morning. When the passengers entered the Los Primos terminal, two travelers were sleeping on old van seats, their feet propped on chairs, covered with blankets that bore the bus line's logo.

One memory of the trip back to Houston sticks with me. At about 4 a.m., I awakened to the sound of a quiet conversation. A family of four in front of me was stirring. A couple with two boys, maybe 14 and 11, were traveling to Texas for a wedding. The youngest boy was talking sweetly to his mother, who was chuckling softly and listening.

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