East End Transit

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.

Of course, that policy may be less benevolence than a simple bowing to reality. Trying to put a rein on the East End bus business could be close to impossible. As a population, Mexicans are the heaviest users of buses in the world, and when they immigrate to the U.S., they continue to prefer buses, especially inexpensive express buses for long-haul trips. The bus business is rife with cutthroat pricing, and places high demands on small operators. And within the past few months, a pair of big U.S. companies -- Greyhound and Coach USA -- have been moving in for a piece of the action.

Some of the independent operators think that Greyhound doesn't stand a chance against their intimate, small operations, even though Greyhound's fares are competitive. "Just go downtown to their station and look at the people getting off Greyhound," said one small operator. "They're so sad."

There is a certain truth to this observation. In America, buses have become the transportation choice of the poorer classes. The middle class typically flies or drives. But in Mexico, where there are many fewer automobiles and five different classes of bus service, each one more upscale than the previous, no stigma is attached to bus travel. Executives are as likely to climb aboard a bus as are manual laborers.

Admittedly, though, that egalitarianism isn't necessarily obvious when you enter one of the East End terminals. On a recent November evening, in the scuffed waiting room of El Expreso, four strong, quiet men in new, high-crowned straw cowboy hats sat on old bus seats lined against the wall, staring at their hands. An elderly man in a caramel-colored leather coat leaned against the wall, talking to his wife and two grandchildren. A handsome woman in her 40s was seeing off her 20-year-old daughter, who wore two hooped rings in each ear, baggy jeans and a plaid flannel shirt with the tail hanging out. At her feet sat a battered cardboard box tied with yellow nylon rope. Printed on the side of the box were the words "360 huevos."

Three clerks worked busily behind the ticket counter, whose back wall bears a plastic image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A Mexican soap opera played on the television. Six El Expreso buses were leaving this weekday evening: a 7 o'clock and a 9 o'clock for Brownsville, a 7:15 for Laredo with connections deep into Mexico, an 8:15 to Dallas. The bus for Miami was leaving at 8, and half an hour later another one was scheduled to go to Atlanta. A ticket to Monterrey costs $38. Although companies across the street were charging $25 and $30, El Expreso, the biggest and one of the older East End bus companies, has a loyal clientele who will pay the steeper fare.

There is an informality, an improvisational warmth about the East End bus companies, that is endearing. Two men came into El Expreso bearing a window wrapped with a dozen or so flattened cardboard boxes. It's hard to imagine how a large corporate entity would deal with an awkward, fragile package such as this, but at El Expreso it was no big deal. The men were going to take it to Mexico with them, probably to build a home with wages earned in this country, and they would personally load it onto the bus.

A taco vendor opened his plastic ice chests and began selling his wares: flour tortillas stuffed with beef, chicken or sausage, hand-wrapped in aluminum foil, a dollar each; soft drinks for 50 cents. Two of the men in straw hats rose from their seats and made purchases, dousing their tacos with hot sauce from a liter-sized plastic bottle.

The passengers were a few minutes late boarding, but it didn't matter; there was plenty of room on the bus. Among the 15 or so passengers was a family of four leaving early to beat the weekend rush, and a grandfather returning home from a visit to relatives. There was a highway construction worker who had been married to an American woman for 15 years; he was taking the bus to see his sick mother in Mexico City, planning a stopover in Monterrey for a rest before heading deeper into the Mexican interior.

The driver wore sharply creased slacks, a crisp white shirt and a necktie. Before heading down US 59 for Laredo, he picked up a few more passengers at El Expreso's downtown station across from Greyhound, and two more at a Texaco station on the Southwest Freeway. The bus was clean and reasonably comfortable, with leg room about like that of an economy-class airline seat.

Before pulling out of the last stop in Houston, the driver opened the overhead compartment nearest the door, revealing a videotape player. Movies are an amenity that Mexican travelers expect during long trips, and the East End bus companies invariably add video to the U.S. buses they buy. The tape player is connected to four small video monitors, two in front and two in the middle of the rows of seats. The driver snapped in a cassette. One might have expected a Mexican movie, perhaps one of those great Westerns where inevitably the hero, who dresses in black, gets drunk and sings. But it was nothing of the sort. The passengers were going to watch Sean Connery and Samuel L. Jackson in Simple Justice, a U.S. film dubbed into Spanish.

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.

Greyhound has made a concerted study of the Hispanic market, and one of the things it has discovered is that, no surprise, Mexicans are conditioned to using buses. Mexico's population is only 90 million, says Borland, but they take 2.6 billion "person trips" a year by bus. In contrast, in the U.S., which has close to triple Mexico's population, only 300 million "person trips" are made annually. Greyhound, the largest U.S. operator, uses a fleet of 2,000 buses. Mexico's largest bus company, Estrella Blanca, maintains a fleet of from 5,000 to 6,000 buses.

"The Mexican bus business is very sophisticated," Borland says. "Their terminals are like airports. During the peak period of travel, there is a bus that departs every three minutes from Mexico City to Puebla."

While Hispanics constitute only 14 percent of Greyhound's market, it's an expanding segment, and one of crucial importance for the company, which emerged from bankruptcy in 1991, to reach. Greyhound offers a Spanish-language phone number for tickets, and its long-haul prices are competitive with those of the small Hispanic operators. (Greyhound's ticket to Miami, for example, costs $69, compared to $99 for El Expreso.) Still, there's a philosophical difference in the way Greyhound and the Hispanic lines operate. The Hispanic lines tend to run point to point, with very few stops; Greyhound buses stop often. While it runs direct buses to Laredo on the weekends, on weekdays its Laredo buses stop in San Antonio.

"One group wants fast, single-destination, infrequent service," Borland says, "but there are others who want the ... frequency that Greyhound provides."

While it's essential for Greyhound to go after the Hispanic market, Borland says, it would be a mistake for them to create a Hispanic Greyhound. Instead, the Dallas-based company is buying small bus companies that have already capitalized on the growth of the Hispanic market.

In June, Texas Greyhound bought Valley Transit, an Anglo-owned South Texas bus company with bilingual drivers that serves 71 cities across the state's southern tier. In October, Greyhound bought Los Angeles's Golden State, a 400-bus operation with 125 employees owned by a man who started out making weekend runs from southern California to Mexico in the family Suburban.

Valley Transit has a 33-year history of marketing to Hispanics. One of its key assets in that effort has been Flor Winters, a bilingual former medical student who grew up in the Yucatan. Winters and her ex-husband, Ray Wentworth, are the ticketing and freight agents for Valley Transit at its South Houston station, which is on College Avenue not far from Hobby Airport. In the station's windowless office, Winter is the meeter and greeter and telephone friend to whomever calls. Her husband, David Winters, says part of her success is that, with customers, "Flor is just like a mother."

There seemed to be some truth to that on a recent afternoon. A purple Suburban was parked in front of the station with a worried father who didn't speak English and his bilingual, diabetic 18-year-old son, who was headed alone to Chicago. From South Houston he would take a Valley Transit bus to Greyhound's terminal on Main, then transfer to a northbound Greyhound bus. The boy, who was skinny and wore a backwards baseball cap, didn't seem the least bit worried. But his father required some calming explanations of how the transfer would work before he allowed his son to depart.

For Flor Winters, it was all in a day's work. A diminutive woman, she has the kind of easy confidence and charm that you don't get when you call Greyhound's 800 number for ticket information. As a commissioned agent, Winters must generate her own marketing, which includes T-shirts, fliers and ads on Spanish-language television.

Valley Transit, which is rumored to be changing its name to Tejano, has built a market advantage by catering to Spanish speakers with bilingual drivers. Like Marco Lucano, David Winters says he will sometimes pick up passengers who have no means of getting to the South Houston station. Flor Winters says she has a steady clientele of repeat customers, and hopes to persuade more of them to try Greyhound for long-distance trips. With her charm, she might very well be able to do it.

One of the more interesting moves by American carriers has been the acquisition of the largest of the independent Hispanic carriers by Coach USA, a Houston-based, publicly traded consolidation company. Coach USA's strategy is to buy small transportation companies, keep the management in place, and then help them expand by providing capital and expertise. The company can also help small bus lines cut costs through corporate purchasing power of equipment and insurance. In short, Coach USA wants to do with bus companies what Browning-Ferris did with trash hauling -- which isn't surprising, since the idea for the company came from two former BFI executives. Since it went public in May of last year, Coach USA has become the largest charter and tour bus operation in America, says Coach USA spokesman Larry King, and has bought such familiar Texas companies as Kerrville Bus Company and Gray Line of Houston.

In the first week of September, the company also bought El Expreso, which had been founded by Cesar Navarro, an outspoken entrepreneur of Peruvian and Mexican ancestry who started driving vans in 1989 when he worked at a large company whose employees needed transportation. El Expreso now has 190 employees and 40 buses and transports more than half a million passengers a year.

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.

It was a quiet moment, one whose intimacy spoke to family connections, just as the trip north to be part of a marriage celebration did. Family ties are strong among first- and second-generation Mexican immigrants, who, unlike most other waves of immigrants that have entered the U.S., are relatively near their original homeland. Those family bonds have done much to fuel the Hispanic bus boom. The buses make it possible to go home cheaply, and to go home often.

But if the pull of family has lifted the East End bus companies into prominence, the question remains whether that pull will last. Historically, America has had a way of making people forget where they came from, of making them Americans first, immigrants second. As the first generation gives way to the second, and the second to the third, will the buses south be as alluring? Or will the appeal shift to cars and planes, as it has for other Americans?

It's an unanswered question, and one that, as the number of first-generation Hispanics continues to swell, may be moot for years to come. For the moment, it's easy to see why the buses are thriving. They're a good way to travel. The buses are clean, the movies are good, the drivers are well-dressed and courteous. And more, the East End bus companies offer a break from American corporate culture, with its rules and ruthless efficiency. Technically, I hadn't entered Mexico until I reached Nuevo Laredo. But spiritually, I was there the moment I hit the bus station in the East End.

Research assistance for this story was provided by Catherine Wentworth.

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