Pinellas SunRunner no longer free to ride: Here’s what to know

Fares on the rapid bus line went into effect Sunday, a month earlier than the transit agency had planned, after a conflict over homeless riders.
The SunRunner, shown parked at a St. Pete Beach stop in August, is no longer free: Regular fares went into effect Sunday.
The SunRunner, shown parked at a St. Pete Beach stop in August, is no longer free: Regular fares went into effect Sunday. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]
Published Oct. 2

After carrying more than a million passengers on its downtown St. Petersburg-to-St. Pete Beach route in its first 11 months, the SunRunner is no longer free.

As of Sunday, the rapid bus service costs the same as any other line operated by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority: $2.25 per ride, or $1.10 per ride for those ages 9-18 or 65 or older, riders with disabilities and adult students with student IDs. Daily rates will be capped at $5 per rider, or $2.25 for those eligible for the lower cost.

Unlike other lines, though, the SunRunner doesn’t take cash. Riders must pay with a debit or credit card, a smartphone’s digital wallet or a card or app from Flamingo Fares, the transit-pay system used around Tampa Bay. Those eligible for discounts will only get them if they use a Flamingo Fares account.

The Transit Authority had always planned to charge SunRunner riders after a free period to attract new riders, but for a time it looked as if free rides might continue into next year. The agency’s board of directors voted in February to extend the free period to November, and St. Petersburg’s city council was contemplating funding in its 2024 budget that would have covered riders’ fees beyond that date.

That timeline changed in August when the transit board, facing pressure from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and residents and officials in St. Pete Beach, voted to implement fares starting this month. Those in the high-income beach community argued that homeless riders, some of whom took the bus to sleep on the beach during a heat wave or to panhandle at a nearby shopping plaza, posed a threat to their quality of life and tourism.

Gualtieri posted extra deputies near the St. Pete Beach SunRunner stops to stem minor crimes, such as trespassing, public urination and nudity. But he said he couldn’t keep bearing the cost — $10,000 a week — and didn’t believe in solving the problem through arrests. He told the board in August that he saw imposing a fare as the only way to resolve the conflict. It’s too soon to tell if the fare is working, the sheriff said Monday, but he’s nixed the extra deputies while the agency collects data.

“We’ll give it 30 days and see what happens,” he said.

At a board meeting last Wednesday, two members — citizen appointee Vince Cocks and St. Petersburg City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders — said they worried about how speeding up the fare implementation would affect riders. Both noted that the paper fare cards for one-way rides that can be bought at convenience stores, and which are handed out by some nonprofits and social service organizations, won’t be available until November.

That could leave a gap for riders who don’t have access to credit or debit cards or an app, Cocks said. He added that board members only recently learned that the Transit Authority will pay about $55,000 to a private security firm to act as fare inspectors on the SunRunner for the first 13 weeks of fares.

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“I just feel like PSTA is ill prepared, and they were pushed into it because of Sheriff Gualtieri’s concerns,” Cocks said in an interview Monday.

Stephanie Weaver, a spokesperson for the transit authority, said staffers have been riding the SunRunner and going to terminals to show riders how to pay for the rapid bus. They’re also handing out $5 Flamingo Fares day passes that can be reloaded at terminals in an effort to soften the effects of the paper card delays. Most riders have been aware that the fees were coming, she said, but needed information on how to pay for rides.

“It can be an adjustment for people,” she said, “but we’re doing the best we can to educate everybody.”