Since 1991, thousands of people have taken a shuttle service that provides dependable and safe nighttime transportation between Isla Vista and downtown Santa Barbara.
But, like many businesses in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought Bill’s Bus to a screeching halt. The bus suspended its scheduled service for Isla Vista residents headed from the seaside community near UC Santa Barbara to the bars downtown, about a 12-mile drive. Now the owner worries the business may not make it.
“We’re just trying to keep this business alive,” said Craig Jenkins, the owner and operator of Bill’s Bus for the past 20 years.
Jenkins’ phone will sometimes ring on Thursday nights. Students still call him and ask about where the bus is picking up paying passengers.
“We haven’t started operating,” Jenkins told the Business Times on Sept. 27. He said he doesn’t feel comfortable putting 50 to 60 mostly unmasked strangers in a bus amid the ongoing public health crisis, even with all the windows open.
“There’s other companies that don’t seem to care about that,” Jenkins said. “I do.”
The insurance provider for Bill’s Bus, Gateway Insurance, filed for bankruptcy in May of 2020. Jenkins said he didn’t feel the need to find new insurance right away, since his operations were paused due to the pandemic.
The least expensive quote he received was $20,000 per bus per year, a figure about four times what he typically paid before the pandemic.
Bill’s Bus has a four-bus fleet, and serves 20,000 to 30,000 riders a year.
Only a handful of insurance companies will deal with commercial vehicles, Jenkins said, and they are not offering Bill’s Bus affordable insurance because of the nature of its service and its lapse in coverage.
“If you have any kind of lapse in coverage, then I’m just starting Bill’s Bus as brand new, and ‘here’s our concept,’” Jenkins said. “No one wants to touch us.”
Jenkins launched an online campaign and is seeking help from the community to get Bill’s Bus back on the road. A GoFundMe page aims to raise $75,000 to help with insurance and other costs, and had garnered more than $13,400 by Sept. 29.
“Even if we hit that goal number, I still have to make that moral judgment call” about whether and when to reopen, Jenkins said.
Monetary donations will be matched dollar-for-dollar thanks to a generous commitment from one UCSB graduate.
“It’s humbling to see people care about keeping this service going because it meant so much to them when they were in school,” Jenkins said. “It’s heartwarming.”
Arrive Alive Santa Barbara, a nonprofit that promotes sober transportation services for UCSB students and others in Santa Barbara County, joined the fundraising effort to keep Bill’s Bus rolling.
“When Craig expressed some of the struggles he was facing getting the service running again, naturally we had to work together to find a solution,” Arrive Alive Santa Barbara President Jeremy Patterson said.
The pandemic has not been easy for small businesses like Bill’s Bus, Patterson said, even one that’s a landmark in Isla Vista and Santa Barbara.
“They have been recognized for reducing the number of DUI’s amongst college students, and we are happy to help a service that has saved so many lives over the past 30 years,” Patterson said. “It’s that simple: They make sure students get home safe and they don’t have to drink and drive while doing it.”
Bill Singer founded Bill’s Bus 30 years ago, to prevent Isla Vistans from driving downtown and back while under the influence.
The service almost ended once before. In 2002, during UCSB’s winter break, Jenkins ran into Singer at a brewery in Santa Barbara. Jenkins, a 1998 UCSB graduate, had been working in downtown bars since 1997 and had become a partner in the nightclub Velvet Jones in 2000.
That night in 2002, Jenkins asked Singer when the bus was going to start running again, because the downtown bars depended on it. Singer told him the business was ending, so Jenkins bought it.
“We worked out a purchase price, and never broke service,” Jenkins said.
Haley Mariah, the assistant general manager of EOS Lounge, said Bill’s Bus helps bring customers to the downtown nightclub.
Lyft and Uber fares have been climbing in the area, and Bill’s Bus charges a $10 round-trip fare between downtown Santa Barbara and Isla Vista.
“There are a lot of people who I think that $20-30 Uber would deter them from coming out at all,” Mariah said.
Bill’s Bus, she said, brings “a positive and responsible aspect to the downtown community. This world needs more people to take responsibility.”
Jenkins has an ambitious vision for Bill’s Bus. He’d like to raise enough money to offer the service free of charge to UCSB students for the 2021-22 school year. The goal can be achieved if the online campaign can collect $200,000, Jenkins said. He also would donate services for alumni gatherings and other events.
“The company never made a lot of money,” Jenkins said. “It was never about the money. It was about the service.”