The expression a Microsoft Connector driver made when we asked about traffic | KUOW News and Information

The expression a Microsoft Connector driver made when we asked about traffic

Oct 25, 2016

Chuck Collins is the guy who ran Metro in the 1970s.

He should be the kind of guy who salivates over light rail. But instead, he’s dreaming of more vanpools.

“The paradigm I like to think about is a radically different system," said Collins. "In which self-driving vans are the dominant form of mass transit.”

Until a few weeks ago, Collins’ $1,000 contribution made him the top donor fighting Sound Transit’s megaplan, known among wonks as ST3. Recently, much bigger donors have surpassed him, and the money on both sides has been piling up. But Collins signed on to fight ST3 early.

Collins walked me to the end of his driveway, on West Mercer Way, and pointed to an abandoned bus stop across the street. Now, he said, transportation planners have shifted toward a system that favors transporation spines at the expense of peripheral bus stops like the one near his house. Collins said Sound Transit’s trains would do the same thing.

His argument: Most of our region won’t be within walking distance of light rail, even after all of ST3 is built. So people living and working in decentralized areas will have to transfer a lot. People take buses from their homes – to the trains. Then they’ll take buses from the trains to their work.

But people don’t transfer in Seattle or in most West Coast cities, he said.

Transfers have become easier for riders over the years since Collins ran Metro, especially with electronic ORCA cards. But Collins says: Just look at his neighbors. They drive rather than take the bus.

Hence the vanpools. Collins likes the Microsoft’s Connector service especially. Vans and small buses pick people up where they live – and take them directly to work.

Irene Plenefisch works in government affairs at Microsoft, which supports ST3. Charles Collins, former Metro Transit head residing on Mercer Island, put in $1,000 to fight it.
Credit KUOW Photos/Joshua McNichols

I wanted to push a little bit on that idea, to see how it worked in practice, so I hitched a ride on a Microsoft Connector bus. I found one on the Microsoft campus. Driver Detta Hayes opened her bus door to ask why I was waving my microphone around.  

A few minutes later, the nine-year Microsoft Connector driver – a former Microsoft cook – had me wrapped around her finger with her abundant personality and constant convulsions of laughter. "I'd be great on radio," she said. "I'm loud."

I asked Hayes if her Connector bus gets stuck in traffic very often. 

“Of course we do," she answered incredulously before busting up laughing. Like when she’s driving on Highway 520, she explained, and she comes to the exit for Microsoft. 

People start lining up way before they get to the exit. And then they just inch along, bumper to bumper, in the HOV lane. I noticed that too on my way in. 

“It sucks. I’m not gonna lie!" Hayes looked nervously at the Microsoft communications folks in her rearview window. "Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you all this?”

But Hayes did not get in trouble. In fact, Microsoft has said pretty much the same thing. Irene Plenefisch, a government affairs expert who works at Microsoft, said “the problem with buses, the problem with vanpools – all of those things – is that they sit in traffic. It’s extremely unproductive time.”

Plenefisch helped the company reach its decision to pour $300,000 into the campaign to approve Sound Transit 3. She says Microsoft would benefit from a far-reaching light rail plan.

Microsoft Connector buses can carry over 7,000 workers. But almost 40,000 people work at Microsoft in Redmond. 

"We’ve implemented a stop gap," said Plenefisch, "But for us to implement that for all of our employees is a little bit unrealistic.”

With congestion getting worse, you could argue the Connector service is becoming less functional. In contrast, Plenefisch says, "Light rail has its own right-of-way, and that’s how it gets out of congestion. And that’s why we think it’s such an important option to develop.”

Chuck Collins, on the "No" side, says we could do more to make vanpools viable, like give them more dedicated lanes. Just lay down a little paint! But taking lanes away from cars has proven politically difficult lately on Interstate 405.

Chuck Collins’s $1,000 contribution to the "No" side might seem tiny compared to Microsoft’s donation. Amazon, Costco and labor unions also given large donations to the "Yes" campaign. 

But recently, the fight became a little more even when Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman and affiliated groups put in half a million dollars to stop ST3.