In January, representatives of the Valley of the Moon Commute Club stood before Sonoma City Council to deliver the news: effective March 1, the weekday commuter bus service was closed for business.
With decreased ridership and increased gas costs, the Commute Club had struggled for almost a year to break even. After months of approaching other bus companies, searching for a cheaper contract and running at a deficit, the group was ready to throw in the towel.
That was, until a fairy godmother came in the form of Pure Luxury Wine Tours, who officially took over the commute service this morning.
Back in December, a Google alert popped up on Jennifer Buffo's computer screen containing a Sonoma Patch article .
She showed the article to her husband, and Pure Luxury founder Gary Buffo.
Together, the Petaluma-based pair decided to do something.
"We’ve been in this community for 20 years, and the community’s supported us," said Gary Buffo. "I thought, 'If we can make something work and not lose too much money it would be good to give back.'"
"People rely on [having a commute service] to move up here," he said.
That was certainly true when current commuter Pattie O’Connor moved to Sonoma with her husband just over four months ago.
"[The club bus] certainly wasn’t the only reason we moved to Sonoma, but it was certainly a consideration when we moved that this bus service was there," said O'Connor. "So, when I learned a few short months after I moved to Sonoma that the likelihood of its folding was there, I kind of was like, 'oh darn.'"
One of the reasons the match works with Pure Luxury's "green" business model: keeping individuals off the road is not only safer, it saves on carbon emissions.
It's also a way of filling some of the empty buses Pure Luxury sends to the city to pick up clients for later in the day.
"Even if we’re going down an hour and a half early for a job, at least we’re helping people stay off the road," said Jennifer Buffo.
The Commute Club received a partial subsidy from Golden Gate Transit when the service ran with their old bus company, but they lost the subsidy by switching to Pure Luxury.
Still, the Buffos have promised to drop prices: regular commuters will pay $325 per month, rather than the $350 the club charged before. Single time riders can pay $15 for a single trip.
Pure Luxury has reduced costs by using their newer diesel engines, which provide between 11-14 miles per gallon; good for a large vehicle.
They've also streamlined the schedule: the bus will use a single stop in Sonoma, at Park and Ride at the corner of Hwy. 116 and Hwy. 12, rather than the meandering line through town the commuter used before.
The Buffos expect to lose money on the commuter--between $1,000 and $2,000 per month, depending on gas prices.
"It was big, it’s a big sacrifice for him, but he’s just the nicest guy and he’s willing to do it for the good of Sonoma," said O'Connor.
The couple is considering expanding the service to Windsor or Petaluma depending on the success of the Sonoma commuter. But, in the short term future, the Buffos are simply happy to help workers get to their jobs a bit easier.
"Our main focus with this isn’t to make money, it’s to break even and keep everyone commuting," said Jennifer Buffo.
"But it would be nice to break even," added Gary Buffo.
(Editors Note: After writing about the Commute Club in December, I referred my boyfriend, who regularly uses the single-ride service to travel between Sonoma and San Francisco.)
Visit the Commute Club online at the Pure Luxury Wine Tours homepage for schedule details.
Correction Appended: The Commute Club's Sonoma stop is at the intersection of Hwy. 116 and 12, not at Broadway and Leveroni as formerly stated.