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Originally published September 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 7, 2007 at 11:55 AM

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Microsoft adds to list of perks

Some of Microsoft's 36,000 employees in the region are about to get attractive new options of where to work and how to get there. The company confirmed Thursday...

Seattle Times technology reporter

Some of Microsoft's 36,000 employees in the region are about to get attractive new options of where to work and how to get there.

The company confirmed Thursday it is leasing close to 170,000 square feet of space in three buildings on either end of downtown Seattle, enough room for about 700 employees.

Combined with offices and employees Microsoft added with the acquisition of aQuantive last month, the total downtown Seattle presence is expected to be more than 1,400 people by next spring.

For the vast majority of its workers who remain at the company's expanding Redmond campus, Microsoft is launching a free, private express bus service to work. Beginning Sept. 24, it will carry up to 1,000 workers each day along five routes.

Microsoft appears to be positioning the downtown locations and the bus service as recruiting tools in a bid to remain desirable to workers who may also be considering jobs with competitors such as Google and Yahoo, both of which are increasing their presence in the region.

"It's the kind of investment that we think our employees and prospective future employees are likely to appreciate," Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and top regional transportation spokesman, said of the bus service, called "the Connector."

Thousands of Microsoft employees at Safeco Field for the annual company meeting Thursday cheered both announcements, according to employees taking a break outside.

The company is leasing the top four floors of the new Westlake/Terry Building in South Lake Union, developed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan, and owned jointly by Vulcan and Group Health Cooperative, which recently moved its headquarters there.

About 400 employees, many from Microsoft's fast-growing online services business (which competes head to head with Google and Yahoo), will move into the neighborhood early next year.

There will also be temporary space for Microsoft workers who live in Seattle — roughly 5,000 to 6,000 of the local total — to "touch down" while the rush-hour traffic to Redmond subsides or around meetings on the west side of Lake Washington.

Chris Owens, Microsoft general manager of worldwide real estate and facilities, said the Westlake/Terry Building could be viewed as the company's "initial foray into Seattle," not including space it occupied through an acquisition in 1999.

"I think that the option is open for us to grow further," he said.

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Transportation focus

Meanwhile, Microsoft is placing more emphasis on solving the transportation hassles that plague employees commuting to and from Redmond.

Smith declined to disclose the cost of the Connector service, describing it as "not an inexpensive investment."

"These are great buses, as you can see," Smith said, standing in front of a 45-foot bus streaked with a green design reminiscent of the packaging for Windows Vista.

The Belgian-made Van Hool Premier Passenger Coach sells for about $450,000, according to a sales manager at ABC Companies, the exclusive U.S. distributor for Van Hool.

Microsoft's Connector service will begin with seven of the 45-foot buses, which hold 57 passengers each, and seven 28-seat midsize coaches. All the buses are equipped with Wi-Fi connections and laptop plug-ins.

"One of the great things about these buses is not only that it gets people to work faster than the commute they have today, but ... it makes them more productive or just makes the ride more enjoyable if they want to surf the Internet," Smith said.

In planning the routes, Microsoft studied where its Puget Sound-area employees live and whether they are well-served by public-transportation options.

Routes, designed to pick up workers near parking areas, will serve Seattle, Mill Creek, Bothell, Issaquah, south Sammamish and Snoqualmie.

The buses will run between 6:20 and 9:30 a.m., returning from Redmond between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Employees will be able to reserve seats and track the location of the buses with internally developed software.

Microsoft said the service will replace about 800 car trips daily, but it's unclear whether the Connector will have a noticeable impact on the congested routes to and from Redmond.

Roughly 115,000 vehicles cross the Highway 520 floating bridge each weekday, according to the Washington Department of Transportation.

"I don't know if we can quantify it at this point, but I'm very proud of them for doing it," said Linda Ballew, executive director of the Greater Redmond Transportation Management Association, which counts Microsoft among its members.

Program ideas

Microsoft looked at programs in Silicon Valley to help plan its own service, Smith said, without naming companies.

Google operates a free bus service from its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

Kevin Desmond, general manager of King County Metro Transit, said Puget Sound-area corporations have a long history of working with transit authorities to develop alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles, including the Metro VanPool program, started with Boeing's cooperation.

Microsoft's bus service is on the extreme end of the scale, he said.

The company worked with Metro in planning the Connector, Desmond said. He is not concerned about losing riders to the private service.

"They're filling a niche that the public-transportation system obviously doesn't fill for those people," he said. "They're just providing more capacity."

Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report. Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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