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Friday, February 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Little bus makes a big difference

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

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Using DART To use King County Metro's Dial-a-Ride Transit service, call 866-261-DART (3278) or 800-246-1646 (TTY). Be prepared with information on where you want to start and where you wish to go. Or make reservations online through Hopelink at www.hope-link.org

The nonprofit group operates DART under a contract with King County Metro Transit.

Unlike most of her Eastside neighbors, Jamileh Rafatjah doesn't own a car — a distinction she says affects everything from when she sees her doctor to where she can work in a sprawling region where buses remain the primary alternative to driving.

She counts on the small 18-seat bus that pulls up near her Issaquah home several times a day — part of Metro's Dial-a-Ride Transit (DART) program — to reach her job selling furniture in the Klahanie shopping center, more than three miles away.

If she works late, it's a long walk home in the wintry darkness unless she's able to hitch a ride with friends.

"It's not like Seattle where you can get pretty much anywhere," Rafatjah said after climbing aboard one recent sunny morning. "It's almost impossible to live on the Eastside without a car."

The DART program is one of the bright spots in Eastside bus service. Although King County Metro pledged to add more than 40,000 service hours to the Eastside by 2007 under its six-year transit development plan, service has grown by only 11,000 hours so far, according to Jack Lattemann, a Metro transportation planner.

Updated timetables that go into effect tomorrow include some connection improvements, but new routes and additional hours have been stalled by dwindling tax revenues and may be years away, Lattemann said.

"Right now we're not in much of a position to think about new routes," Lattemann said. "Unfortunately, our sales-tax revenues have not bounced back as quickly as predicted."

DART, however, has grown steadily since it began serving the Eastside in the early 1990s, jumping from just one route averaging 60 riders per day to five routes serving more than 500 riders daily.

It also serves Kent, Renton and other South King County communities, tallying more than a half million boardings each year countywide.

Its fleet of converted vans covers five Eastside areas — Phantom Lake and Crossroads; Newcastle and Coal Creek; Issaquah and Lake Sammamish Plateau; Kenmore and the Juanita area; and Redmond along Willows Road — where standard bus service was limited to rush-hour runs or where streets are too twisty and narrow for regular buses to navigate.

Riders can catch buses along a designated route or request the bus pull up within a block or two of their whereabouts if they make reservations at least two hours ahead.

"Where these things tend to work well are in low-density areas where we can't afford to invest in a dense structure of bus routes," Lattemann said.

In some cases, the county uses DART routes to gauge demand for potential regular routes. The 927 bus that serves Issaquah and Sammamish is a case in point.

Metro launched the route in 1993 to provide bus service to the nascent, fast-growing communities along the Sammamish Plateau, Lattemann said. At first, the route was based on reservations. After Metro got a sense of where people wanted to go, it adopted a hybrid schedule. The bus follows a regular route but can veer off it to pick up folks who reserve a spot.

The route runs about 12 hours a day, six days a week. It's one of the few to serve the Sammamish Plateau and has become a mainstay for many of its riders, who have doubled in number from about 60 per day to more than 120 per day in 2004, said Jim Arrowsmith, a Metro transit-service planner for the Eastside.

The 926, newest of the Eastside's DART routes, was started in 2001 to bring midday service to Eastgate, Crossroads and Phantom Lake. To the north, the 935 DART route helps scores of students and staff members at Bastyr University reach campus.

The 927 bus was nearly full one recent weekday morning as it rolled past woodsy vistas along Klahanie Boulevard Southeast. Passengers in their late teens to well-heeled seniors disembarked at the Klahanie shopping center, the Issaquah Transit Center and the Issaquah Valley Senior Center.

Justin Wells of Sammamish hopped aboard at the transit center to reach his job at a nearby Jamba Juice. Wei Xu, whose husband has the car during the day, caught the 927 in Klahanie to reach her marketing classes at Bellevue Community College. Both said they wished the bus ran more than once an hour.

Tausha Stapleton's husband also has the car during the day. She uses DART to take her son, Carter, to the pool, to story time at the Issaquah Library, to the doctor and to reach her appointments as a Mary Kay cosmetics consultant. She said her family chose their neighborhood, in part, because the bus runs nearby.

"It's perfect," Stapleton said. "It really goes anywhere. It doesn't throw us off schedule at all."

The nonprofit group Hopelink, which serves homeless and low-income families, children, seniors and people with disabilities throughout North and East King County, operates the DART service under contract with Metro.

The arrangement helps Hopelink fund programs like food banks and job-training classes, said Katie Amodie, a Hopelink spokeswoman. DART also helps Hopelink's clientele get around to do basic things like grocery shop.

"A lot of our clientele don't have cars. They totally rely on transportation systems provided by Metro," Amodie said.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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