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The Drunk Bus: Fighting Drunk Driving One Busload At A Time

Corre Cantinas shuttles the folks of Silver City from their homes to bars - and back. Thomas Ponce, left, and his ex-wife Brenda Arsola are regular riders.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Corre Cantinas shuttles the folks of Silver City from their homes to bars - and back. Thomas Ponce, left, and his ex-wife Brenda Arsola are regular riders.

It was a dark Saturday night in little Silver City, and I was running late for the “drunk bus.” At least that’s what most people call Corre Cantinas, which is actually a trio of public buses that rumble through this town of 10,000, and the even tinier spots that surround it, every Friday and Saturday night. I wasn’t drunk, but lots of the people who use this bus are. It’s an alternative, they say, to getting behind the wheel after they’ve had a few too many.  

“Thank you so much for waiting,” I said as I hopped in.

“You’re welcome,” said driver Bobby Silva as he swung open the door. “Come on in.”

Silva has lived in this rural pocket of southwestern New Mexico all his life. He’s been a Corre Cantinas driver for five years.

“And, you know, you get a little bit of everything,” he said, taking a curve. “You get happy people. You get crazy people. You get funny people. You get a little variety. And like I always say, they’re out just having fun.”

And doing the right thing, he thinks, by calling him rather than taking a chance and driving themselves. Uber may never make it here. Taxi services come and go. But Corre Cantinas has been around for nearly a decade. It’s on demand. All you have to do is call between 5:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. and the bus will pick you up from home, take you the bar and get you back safe at the end of the night.

Silva and I pulled up to the Buckhorn Saloon, a cowboy kind of place in the village of Pinos Altos. A guy came running out of the place.

“Bobby, don’t take off without me, bro!” said Thomas Ponce, a little out of breath.

“Oh, why not, man?” Silva said.

“Because I’m drunk and I need a ride,” said Ponce, as he rushed off to pay his tab.

A few minutes later, they were laughing and high-fiving as Ponce got on. He said he’d been hearing about Corre Cantinas for years before he ever called it, which he regrets now. In between, he racked up three DWIs.

“And I started using them a lot, because I learned my lesson,” he said. “I’m done. It took a little bit to learn my lesson, but I did. A little hard-headed.”

But it doesn’t take getting caught by the police to turn someone onto Corre Cantinas, which is part city bus, part designated driver. All it takes is $3.50 per person, each way.

After dropping Ponce off, we drove back up a steep, winding road to the Buckhorn, where a large, tipsy group was waiting at the door.

“There’s 40 million of us!” yelled one woman.

Another lady smiled as she spoke right into my mic.

“Hello, how are you?” she said. “We’re on the drunk bus, and it’s all good.”

There were about 10 riders, folks who referred to themselves as “working professionals.”  They climbed in with bottles of wine and sculptures and paintings, bounty from an auction they’d been attending. Mike Bush, who’s visiting from Arizona, said they were all faced with the same problem: how to make it down the mountain and back to Silver City.

“The only other solution we have is we have several of our people here that have teenage daughters that can drive,” he said. “So other than the drunk bus, that’s our secondary solution.”

His wife Judy, who was raised here, chimed in.

“Whoever’s idea, it was awesome,” she said. 

That title goes mainly to Cindy McClean, the program coordinator for the Grant County DWI Prevention Program. Corre Cantinas is kind of her baby. She remembers what people said when she started the drunk bus. They questioned the $15,000 in taxpayer money it takes to operate it every year.

“God, what are you doing!” said McClean, with a dramatic flair.

She would hear that sort of thing around town. But a decade later, that kind of talk is pretty much gone. Though DWI arrests have not gone down, alcohol-related crashes have, at least on the Fridays and Saturdays that the bus operates. The other nights still tend to haunt McClean, though.

“One gentleman, that killed somebody a few years ago, he rode the bus every single weekend and, because he was on a Sunday and we weren’t running, he drove and he killed somebody,” she said.

McClean is the daughter of an alcoholic and has had her own struggles with drinking in the past. So she’s not naïve about this area’s hard drinking tendencies. She’s just trying to help where she can.

“Just because you have a problem doesn’t mean you have to get a DWI,” she said. “You can still make choices.”

Like spending $7 to ride Corre Cantinas, roundtrip. 

When senior field correspondent Stina Sieg was 22, she moved to the desert. She hasn’t been the same since. At the time, the Northern California native had just graduated from college and was hankering for wide-open spaces. So she took a leap and wrote to nearly every newspaper in New Mexico until one offered her a job. That’s how she became the photographer for a daily paper in the small town of Silver City. And that’s when she realized how much she loved storytelling. In the years since, the beauty of having people open up and share their stories — and trust her to tell them — has never gotten old to Sieg. Before coming to KJZZ, Sieg was also a writer and photographer at newspapers in Glenwood Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and the Smoky Mountains town of Waynesville, North Carolina. She always had her hand in public radio, too, including hosting Morning Edition on a fill-in basis at WNCW in North Carolina. It’s still the best music station she’s found. When she’s not reporting, chances are Sieg is running, baking, knitting or driving to some far-flung town deep in the desert — just to see what it looks like.