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Wednesday, November 6, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Issaquah merchants spend money to promote bus service

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Fast-growing Issaquah has long been known for its quaint village feel, unique local shops and, increasingly, sprouting acres of new big-box retail. It's also reached near-fame status in the Puget Sound region for its traffic jams.

What most people don't know is that while they sit and steam in their cars, caught in the overflow of Interstate 90 gridlock, a free shuttle has been tooling around the core of Issaquah, more than half empty, for seven years.

Run by King County Metro Transit, the 18-seat Route 200 travels from one end of town to the other from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, making stops at the north-end business parks, the Issaquah Park & Ride, shopping centers all along Northwest Gilman Boulevard and Front Street, community and senior centers and schools.

"You can get into, out of and around Issaquah without getting stuck in traffic," said Connie Marsh, the owner of Double Take vintage store, who is leading an effort to boost ridership on the shuttle. "It's just that most people don't know it."

It's a costly secret. Metro paid $865,000 last year to operate the shuttle, and the agency received $27,000 from the city of Issaquah, which subsidizes the lack of fares. In spring 2002, average ridership on the Issaquah route was 320 "trips," which means the number of boardings. On each of the three shuttle buses that run the route, that can translate to an average of about eight riders an hour. A busy Eastside bus route carries about 60 riders per hour.

Except for the "Freebee" message displayed across the front of the bus, there's nothing to distinguish the shuttle stops from those for other Metro buses that cost up to $2.

"This is one of my busiest trips," said shuttle driver Dave Fettermann on a recent weekday afternoon as he navigated the turquoise and yellow bus down Issaquah's crowded Front Street. Eleven of the cozy shuttle's 18 seats were occupied, mostly by students and a couple of senior citizens. One mother boarded with her baby after playing at a park. "Usually it's about six people at the most," Fettermann said.

A coalition of local merchants is trying to change that. As congestion in downtown and on Interstate 90 grows worse, shoppers become more reluctant to venture into the Issaquah traffic mess, business owners say.

In response to low ridership, merchants have started a promotion effort that they hope will sell more people on the shuttle and on taking the bus in general. The merchants got a $3,000 grant from the city and raised $3,000 on their own. They started a marketing campaign a month ago that included enticing riders onto the shuttle with coupons for free coffee and discounts at local stores.

The group also printed and mailed to residents maps of the free shuttle route and all bus routes going into and out of Issaquah. They chose a logo for the free shuttle — a grinning bumblebee — and nicknamed the route the "Freebee." They're working with Metro to have the logo placed on all Route 200 bus-stop signs, which would cost them about $50 per sign for the more than two dozen stops.

The free shuttle began in 1995 as a deal between the city and the developer of the then-new Commons at Issaquah shopping center. The developer paid Metro for two years of shuttle service in response to concerns about traffic at the new mall. The city is lucky still to have the route, especially in difficult financial times, said Jim Jacobson, deputy general manager of Metro.

Kent has two similar free "Shopper Shuttle" routes, which see even less ridership than the Issaquah bus — about 291 passenger-trips a day. That route costs Kent $21,300 and Metro $276,000 a year. Downtown Seattle also has a free-ride area. "The ridership (on the shuttles) is not as great as a typical bus route, but for many people this is their only way," Jacobson said.

Bellevue considered a similar shuttle downtown, but a subsequent study showed ridership wouldn't be high enough, said spokeswoman Barbara Ramey.

Those who do use the free service say they've come to depend on it.

"I actually can't believe more people don't use this," said Hayley Steele, an Issaquah college student who uses the shuttle to get around town and to connect with a Bellevue bus. "Basically, right now my budget is about $20 a month for the bus, if I'm lucky. This really helps."

The route is well-used by students and seniors, who often don't have cars or cannot drive, but not many employees or shoppers seem to use it during the day, merchants say.

Scott Loomis takes the shuttle after school to get to his job at an office-supply store in downtown Issaquah. "I didn't even know it was free until I got on," he said. "I don't want a car because I'd have to pay for gas and insurance and sit in traffic. It's just a bonus that this is free."

Fettermann, the driver, said ridership might pick up if more people knew about it, but a few extra minutes between stops would help, too. Often, he said, a connector bus will pull away from the Issaquah Park & Ride seconds before Fettermann gets to the stop.

Local merchants hope that by promoting the free shuttle and other buses, they can encourage more people to leave their cars behind.

"If people knew there was a small bus that could take them around Issaquah, they might be more likely to take the big bus to work," said Marsh, who sells everything from furniture to velvet capes at her vintage shop.

"The traffic is really bad around here," said Selina Buck, manager of Espresso Time, a drive-through and coffee shop that helped sponsor the Route 200 promotion. "Lunchtime through about 2 p.m. is the worst, it seems. If this helps people get around, we're all for it."

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or nsinger@seattletimes.com.

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