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The State

Designated Driver May Go Bust

UC Santa Barbara students and others use a bus service that runs between the university and downtown.

May 19, 2003|Veronique deTurenne | Special to The Times

SANTA BARBARA — To celebrate her 21st birthday, Jessica Eugenio gathered some girlfriends and hit this city's thriving club scene. To make sure the group suffered nothing worse than a hangover, Bill's Bus ferried Jessica and company -- and about a dozen other riders -- to and from their revelries.

"You get where you're going and you get there safe," said Lorian Ash, 21, a student at Santa Barbara City College. "Us girls? We're Bill's groupies. It's a great ride, cheaper than cab fare."

"And much cheaper than a DUI," Eugenio added, as the group headed for the lights and sounds of State Street on Friday night.

Bill's Bus, a shuttle service founded by Bill Singer in 1991, runs between downtown Santa Barbara and Isla Vista, the community that borders UC Santa Barbara. Open to anyone with $7 for bus fare plus a $1 gas surcharge, the service caters to Isla Vista residents heading for the city's clubs and bars, to nighttime workers and to the occasional sober rider out for a late-night movie.

"Bill's Bus is an institution in Isla Vista," said Singer, 31. He founded the bus service when he was 19 and has been running it ever since.

Three de-commissioned city buses, each with a driver and a host -- make the 30-minute circuit. Music pours from the speakers and riders flirt and socialize. By the time the bus doors open in Santa Barbara, it's as though a party in full swing has arrived.

Buses run every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. Service starts at 8:30 p.m. in Isla Vista. The last bus leaves Santa Barbara at 2 a.m.

"We figured out that we have about 25,000 riders a year," Singer said. "That's a lot of potential drunk drivers that we're taking off the road. It makes me feel good that I can actually fix a problem."

But Bill's Bus faces serious problems of its own.

Surging insurance rates and dizzying gas prices, coupled with repeated hikes in workers' compensation, have put the future of the service in jeopardy. Even parking the three-bus fleet has become a problem.

Unless Singer's latest moves -- registering the service as a nonprofit agency and expanding to San Diego -- bring in more money, Bill's Bus could be history.

"I put in about 80 hours a week and I'm always broke," Singer said. "I pay drivers, I pay hosts, and the maintenance costs? Ridiculous. I might as well own a Ferrari."

To break even, Singer said he would have to hike ticket prices to $10 or $12 or more -- stratospheric for college student budgets. Nighttime workers who now get free rides -- "Anyone with a uniform on after 11 p.m. doesn't have to pay," Singer said -- would have to pay .

"Lots of people depend on Bill's Bus," Singer said. "Students have become so responsible that they plan on it and count on it, and that was the goal -- to be reliable and affordable. It's a valuable service."

For the most part, Santa Barbara's anti-drunk driving community agrees.

"Any service that keeps people from driving their cars while intoxicated is a valuable service to the police department," said Sgt. Bill Marazita.

But the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers stops just short of endorsing Bill's Bus.

"We support the concept" that Bill's Bus provides a safe way to get people home after they've been drinking, said Frank Hamilton, treasurer of the Santa Barbara chapter of MADD. "Still, the fact that it's taking them to Santa Barbara to drink in the first place is problematic."

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