PHOENIX Forget Greyhound. When it comes to traveling by bus, Latino immigrants like Arturo Lopez are far more likely to hop aboard lines with names like Crucero, Autobuses Americanos and Transportes Baldomero Corral.
"I like it. It's fast," said Lopez, 53, of Sedona. The farm worker recently bought a ticket from Phoenix to El Paso aboard a Crucero USA bus. "Greyhound costs a lot and it takes a long time to get anywhere. These lines go direct."
Best of all, Lopez added, "the driver speaks Spanish."
Relatively unknown to the general public, Latino bus lines such as Crucero USA and others that cater to Spanish-speaking immigrants are flourishing in the Phoenix market and in cities throughout the Southwest at a time when ridership on Greyhound, the No. 1 bus carrier, is dwindling.
In Arizona, with a Latino population of more than 1.3 million, at least seven bus lines that cater to Spanish-speaking Hispanics have cropped up in Phoenix. Some travel east-west routes between Phoenix and other U.S. cities. Others travel north-south, cross-border routes between Phoenix and cities in Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico.
The lines also have extended service to areas of the country that have seen a rapid growth in the Latino population, including North Carolina and Atlanta. As a result, Latino bus lines have grown into a $300 million industry nationwide.
Except to riders, the arrival of the Latino bus lines has gone largely unnoticed because their terminals are tucked away in tiny storefronts in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, closer to their customers.
Al Penedo, chief operating officer for one of the largest Latino bus lines operating in Phoenix, said the bus lines offer an affordable and familiar way of traveling for riders who tend to be low-wage workers in the United States. In Mexico, 93 percent of all transportation is bus, compared with just 3 percent in the United States.
While the Latino bus lines cater primarily to the Phoenix area's large and fast-growing Spanish-speaking population, non-Latinos also are discovering the carriers.
In January, Tony Smith, a 35-year-old communications engineer from Chandler, traveled by bus to visit his girlfriend in Mexico. Instead of paying $300 to $350 for a one-way airfare, he bought a $53 ticket on Transportes Baldomero Corral, or TBC, from Phoenix to Novojoa, Sonora, a 15-hour journey.
"I thought it was a great deal," Smith said.
Kim Plaskett, a spokeswoman for Greyhound Lines, said the Latino bus lines don't compete with Greyhound.
Crucero and Autobuses Americanos share a bare-bones terminal a few blocks east of downtown Phoenix. Both lines are operated by Dallas-based Sistema Internacional de Transporte de Autobuses Inc., or SITA, a subsidiary of Greyhound Lines.
Still, Greyhound has seen a decline in ridership, from 25 million riders nationwide in 2001 to 22 million riders in 2003. Greyhound's ridership through Phoenix also has dropped, from 1.2 million travelers in 2002 to 1.1 million in 2003, the most recent year figures were available.
Plaskett cited a combination of other factors for Greyhound's decline in ridership, including a sluggish economy.
SITA also owned California-based Golden State Transportation, a commercial bus line that in 2004 was fined $3 million for conspiring with smugglers to illegally transport thousands of undocumented immigrants to destinations across the country.
Golden State operated terminals in a number of major U.S. cities, including Phoenix and Tucson.
In October, the U.S. Border Patrol began patrolling some terminals in Phoenix, the nation's main transportation hub for smuggling undocumented immigrants.
Since then, agents made more than 300 migrant arrests, said Andy Adame, a Border Patrol spokesman.
Penedo, SITA's chief operating officer, said Crucero and Autobuses Americanos cooperate with immigration officials. The company has strict guidelines based on federal laws to prevent employees from knowingly selling tickets to undocumented immigrants or smugglers.
"We even go so far as to tell our employees, when in doubt, do not sell the ticket, simple as that," Penedo said.
Bus lines operating in Arizona face a challenge, however, because many undocumented immigrants enter the country by exploiting visitor visas that allow them to travel as far north as Tucson, but not beyond. But they go farther anyway, Penedo said.
To prevent that, the company does not sell bus tickets from Tucson to Phoenix, Penedo said.
Though the increased popularity of the bus lines has not been without problems, they still offer cheap fares, plush seats and employees who speak Spanish.
Juan Coronel, a 29-year-old Phoenix apartment maintenance worker, recently bought a $50 ticket aboard Crucero USA for his 75-year-old mother, Celsa Avitia, to return to her home in Ciudad Obregon, Mexico, after a two-week visit to Phoenix.
His mother speaks no English, but Coronel knew that if she had any problems during the 12-hour journey, she could communicate with the bus driver.
Coronel said his worries also were eased knowing his mother would not have to transfer to another bus line at the border, as passengers traveling on Greyhound must do.
"This is a lot easier. It goes directly there," Coronel said, standing outside the Crucero terminal as his mother prepared to board the bus.