Commuters Happy To Let Others Do Driving -- Tacoma-To-Seattle Bus Has A Successful Start

Construction worker Tim Fitzgerald, the sky's first light gleaming off his blue lunch pail, stood by himself at a nearly deserted Tacoma Dome parking-lot stop at 5:10 a.m. today.

He wasn't alone for long.

Within 20 minutes, 36 early-bird commuters had boarded the first express bus from Tacoma to Seattle - a service Pierce Transit began today.

Only four seats on the bus were empty.

``I didn't know this many people got up this early in the morning,'' said Pierce Transit marketing supervisor Scott Morris.

Forty minutes later, the bus made its first stop at Fourth Avenue South and South Spokane Street.

``This is great,'' said Frederick Lumbert, raising his head from the complimentary pillow Pierce Transit had given him. ``I just woke up.''

Pierce Transit announced plans for the express service last December after riders responded in an informal survey that they wanted more direct service to Seattle during commuting hours. Census figures also showed that about 3,000 people commute daily from Pierce County to Seattle, according to Pierce Transit planners.

Morris said Pierce Transit expects the service to attract 400 daily riders within its first month or two.

The buses will make 10 trips from suburban Lakewood and Tacoma to Seattle each weekday morning, and nine trips south from downtown in the afternoons. Buses stop along Fourth Avenue in the mornings and along Second Avenue in the afternoons.

The bus goes straight to Seattle, but the riders aren't all necessarily headed there.

Tommie Fairley of Lakewood figures the express will cut about 1 1/2 hours off his trip to vocational training in Kent.

He's been leaving his apartment at 4:45 a.m. and getting to training three hours later - right on time - with transfers in Tacoma, Federal Way and Auburn before getting to Kent.

This way, he'll only have to take a bus to Seattle and a bus back to Kent. He says it should be a lot faster.

Fairley could drive, but falling asleep at the wheel one day convinced him it could be dangerous. He also likes meeting people on the bus.

Rosemarie Price, who plans to use the express service when she returns from vacation next week, just wants an end to white-knuckle driving.

Price, a communications consultant for business accounts at US West Communications in Seattle, was driving on Interstate 5 to Metro's Federal Way Park & Ride lot last year when a semi truck ripped the side off her car.

``I want to get off that freeway,'' she said. ``I want to get into a vehicle that's bigger than mine and let somebody else worry about it.''

Price and her husband, who also works in Seattle, live in unincorporated Pierce County near the town of Fircrest, southwest of Tacoma. She plans to drive to the Tacoma Dome - which won't require using the freeway - and catch the first bus of the day.

So what makes people like Price and Fairley commute at least 60 miles round trip, from one large city to another?

The answers vary. Housing prices over the Pierce County line can be half those in King County, while wages on the Seattle side are generally higher. Some commuters have been transferred to Seattle offices or took jobs there when their Tacoma offices closed, and cannot afford to move near their workplaces.

But one of the biggest factors in commuting is a labor shortage all around Puget Sound, said Chris Johnson, who monitors the Pierce County job market for the state Department of Employment Security.

While the number of jobs in Pierce County is growing, King County has an even greater demand for skilled workers, Johnson said. That means companies around Seattle must offer wages and benefits attractive enough to bring in workers from outlying areas.

``An employer in downtown Seattle may not be able to get someone in Redmond or Bellevue, so he starts recruiting further out'' into Pierce County, said Johnson. ``It's no wonder you have people filling up the freeways.''

Indeed, the Boeing Co., with no facilities yet built in Pierce County, already is the county's largest private employer, according to Department of Employment Security statistics.

To help ease freeway traffic, Pierce Transit offered a special 25-cent fare today. Tomorrow, rides go up to their normal cost of $1.75 one way, 85 cents for senior citizens and the disabled. Monthly passes are $60 and can be purchased at Metro and Pierce Transit customer service offices.

Metro, King County's transportation agency, is providing buses and drivers to Pierce Transit over three years for about $3 million. The buses have been painted with Pierce Transit's colors and logo.