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Originally published September 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 25, 2007 at 2:05 AM

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Climb on board the Microsoft bus

Microsoft's new free bus service, Connector, debuted Monday with about 1,000 people on board. They filled nearly every seat on each of the five routes in Seattle, Bothell, Mill Creek, Issaquah and Sammamish.

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

The bus stops here, and after 13 years of driving to work at Microsoft, Jeff Sylvester was finally on it.

"I've been a driver forever and I decided to finally give up the car," said Sylvester, who took Microsoft's new Connector service to work from his home on Seattle's Capitol Hill.

The free service debuted Monday with about 1,000 people on board. They filled nearly every seat on each of the five routes, serving Seattle, Bothell, Mill Creek, Issaquah and Sammamish.

Riders signed up in advance using a mandatory online reservation system.

Sylvester appreciated a guaranteed seat, though the free Wi-Fi may be the system's greatest selling point, he said.

"You'll get half your e-mail done on the way there."

The buses run between 6:20 and 9:30 a.m., returning from Redmond between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Microsoft figures the Connector could take as many as 20,000 cars off the road each month when operating at full capacity.

Roughly 35 percent of the 36,000 regular Microsoft employees already commute using methods other than driving their car alone.

Other local companies have offered shuttle service and ridesharing programs, but by creating its own independent transportation system, Microsoft has gone a step further.

Giving employees more choices, not freeing up the freeways, is the main point of the program, said Chris Owens, who oversees the company's real estate and facilities.

As the company has grown and the commute has worsened, Microsoft has lost employees who tired of the trek, and failed to attract new ones who did not want to spend so much time getting to and from the Redmond campus, Owens said.

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"I worry about that," he said.

Microsoft collaborated with Metro in creating the Connector routes, which are intended to fill gaps in regular Metro service. Unlike most Metro routes, all Collector routes are express.

The Connector's five routes have only a few stops each before traveling directly to Microsoft's Redmond campus.

Several people who tried it Monday said Connector would get them to and from work faster than their usual Metro bus.

Expansion is already on the horizon. Microsoft has earmarked potential new routes, and it would take as little as 60 days to launch them.

At the moment, Connector is limited to full-time employees, but Owens said the company is "leaving the door open" to one day bring aboard contract workers.

The new program isn't entirely new thinking.

"This is a normal course of being," for a company experiencing such rapid growth, said John Resha, general manager of Urban Mobility Group, a private nonprofit and a former Redmond councilman.

Boeing helped start Metro's van-pool program, and some other employers, like schools and hospitals, run vans to get workers to and from their jobs, he added.

Nonetheless, Resha said Microsoft should be applauded for recognizing its growth has outpaced that of the area's transportation infrastructure, and for doing something about it.

Microsoft already has explored other ways to improve commutes. It influenced Metro by paying for pilot programs to demonstrate whether new Metro bus routes would work, and it shuttles its employees around campus and from the Overlake Transit Center.

Opening offices in Seattle was another way to attract a talent pool of people disinclined to cross Lake Washington, Owens said.

Connector was developed in the spring, but Microsoft evaluated the potential need for such a program as early as 1998, Owens said.

"It's awesome," said Ali Emami, who caught the Connector in Seattle's Belltown district, a few blocks from his home.

Emami usually drives to work, he said, but the Connector could get him and his co-workers out of their cars.

Microsoft already offers free annual transit passes to employees; about 20,000 people take them, though not everyone uses them regularly.

Berry Rogers, of North Bend, took the Connector from Issaquah to figure out "all the bugs in the system," he said.

He's hoping Microsoft will add a stop at its Sammamish campus, where he usually works.

"We've been asking that of Metro for years now," he said.

Owens wouldn't say what Microsoft is paying to have a private transportation company operate Connector, only that it's no more than what it costs to provide employees with a free parking space.

And getting through the e-mail inbox before getting to the office?

Priceless.

Amy Roe: 206-464-3347 or aroe@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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