The SunRunner will get a new stop in downtown St. Petersburg and two new buses next year, officials announced Friday, an expansion they presented as a result of early success for the rapid bus service from downtown to St. Pete Beach.
The new stop will be on the 100 block of First Avenue North, near the Sundial parking garage. Brad Miller, CEO of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, said the spot was chosen for its proximity to the St. Pete Pier, Beach Drive and the Cross-Bay Ferry; the walk from the new stop to the Pier will be about five minutes, according to the Authority, compared to about 12 minutes from the current closest stop at First Avenue and Fifth Street North.
Both the new stop and the new buses will be funded by leftover federal dollars from the original SunRunner project, which came in $5 million under budget, Miller said. The projects received federal approval Thursday.
The announcement Friday, during a news conference at the site of the new stop, came six months to the day after the years-in-the-making project launched, Miller noted. Though the line came up short of its projected 3,000 riders a day in the first few months, ridership has increased each month, up to about 115,000 — or about 3,700 per day — in March, according to the authority.
The line has proven especially popular in conjunction with major downtown events, Miller said, with the line’s single-day record of about 5,000 passengers coinciding with Localtopia and its three-day peak coming on the weekend of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Ridership for those attending Tampa Bay Rays games has also been “surprisingly high,” Miller said.
In surveys, nearly half of all riders said they were using the SunRunner in lieu of their personal vehicle, a boon to both the environment and traffic safety, said Gina Driscoll, a St. Petersburg City Council member and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority chairperson. Officials touted its convenience for workers, citing the presence of some 50,000 jobs within a half-mile of the line.
“More people can get to more places easier,” Miller said. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money developing parking spaces if you have quality mass transit.”
The Authority first floated the expansion in January, with 12 of 13 board members in favor of moving forward; only Pinellas County Commissioner Brian Scott dissented, saying the leftover money should go back to the federal government.
The line remains free to ride through October of this year, and Miller said his agency has been in talks with the city about extending the free period for another year.
“This is what progress looks like,” St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said during Friday’s announcement, “and St. Pete is truly proud to be a part.”