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Starting Oct. 1, Pinellas’ SunRunner will no longer be free to ride

The county’s transit authority voted Wednesday to accelerate its timeline on charging for the downtown St. Petersburg-to-beach bus service.
 
The SunRunner rapid bus service, pictured Friday at a stop in St. Pete Beach, will start charging riders regular fares on Oct. 1, a month earlier than planned. The change, approved Wednesday in a vote by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board of directors, comes after St. Pete Beach residents complained the free service was bringing homeless people into their community.
The SunRunner rapid bus service, pictured Friday at a stop in St. Pete Beach, will start charging riders regular fares on Oct. 1, a month earlier than planned. The change, approved Wednesday in a vote by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board of directors, comes after St. Pete Beach residents complained the free service was bringing homeless people into their community. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]
Published Aug. 23|Updated Aug. 23

ST. PETERSBURG — The SunRunner free rapid bus service, which is projected to transport its millionth passenger next month less than a year after launching, will cost riders the same fare as any other county bus starting Oct. 1.

Members of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board voted Wednesday to impose full fares on the SunRunner, which shuttles between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach, a month earlier than planned.

The move comes in the wake of pressure from St. Pete Beach residents, who have complained about homeless people riding the bus into their community, and from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The sheriff said he saw imposing a fare as the only way to stem an increase in activities such as panhandling, sleeping on the beach and shoplifting.

The fares will be in line with what the transit authority charges for its other routes — $2.25 for a regular ticket, $1.10 for those eligible for reduced fare — but will be payable only by “contactless” options such as a debit or credit card or Flamingo Fares card, not cash. They will apply to riders anywhere on the SunRunner.

The transit authority’s plan to charge a 50-cent fare on beach-bound routes only was scuttled last week, with board members saying they needed Wednesday’s meeting to discuss what to do. Some said they saw the 50-cent plan, intended to dissuade homeless people from riding to the beach, as discriminatory.

Rene Flowers, a county commissioner who serves on the transit authority board, motioned for the Oct. 1 change after Gualtieri said he’d be willing to continue to place extra deputies near the SunRunner’s last St. Pete Beach stop until then, at a cost of $10,000 a week to the Sheriff’s Office. Before then, Flowers said, the transit authority needs to meet with the Sheriff’s Office and social service organizations to start looking for ways to better serve homeless transit riders.

Board members passed the motion in a 12-2 vote.

“Nothing solves everything,” Gualtieri said, but imposing “the full fare would significantly impact this in a positive way.”

The no-votes came from board member Vince Cocks and board chairperson and St. Petersburg City Council Member Gina Driscoll, who has advocated for the SunRunner to stay free for longer. The city’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes funding to pay for SunRunner fares, which would keep it free to ride; should the city pass it, the transit authority board would still have to approve it, though some board members indicated Wednesday that they wouldn’t want the bus to go fare-free again after imposing fares.

She said the transit authority should stick with its plan to start fares on Nov. 1, which would give it a full year of ridership data following the SunRunner’s launch and would allow for transit authority staff to spread the word about fares in a two-month outreach campaign as planned.

Instituting fares sooner, she said, would not address the complex issues of homelessness at the root of the conflict.

“I want to address the real problem, and the real problem is not a bus,” she said. “I don’t want to punish thousands and thousands, almost a million riders, for what a small group is doing that doesn’t have good intentions or really, really needs help.”

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Since July 25, Gualtieri said at Wednesday’s board meeting, deputies in his St. Pete Beach detail have made 52 arrests and issued 132 trespass warnings. Despite some St. Pete Beach residents claiming that crime has skyrocketed, he said, overall crime hasn’t increased in the community. What is up, he said, is “social crime” — such as trespassing and public urination — and shoplifting.

Alex Rey, the city manager for St. Pete Beach, blamed those issues on the SunRunner.

“While it might not be homicide, it is impacting the quality of life of people,” he said. “People need to feel safe, and they need to be able to feel that they can run their business without being harassed.”

Many of those involved, Gualtieri said, are chronically homeless people who refuse services when offered. But he doesn’t see arresting them as a long-term solution.

“The only way I have to solve problems with this group is with enforcement, and that’s back to criminalizing homelessness,” he said. “And that’s not right.”

Monika Alesnik, the CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas, said the sights St. Pete Beach residents and tourists are complaining about — someone sleeping outside a Publix, or bathing nude in a beachside shower — are symptoms of a more pervasive ill.

If fares are implemented, she said, it should be because the transit authority — facing a budgetary crunch that could force it to cut some bus routes — needs the money, not to target homeless riders.

“There are no signs on our beaches that I remember seeing that state you must own a home or be a renter to use our beach,” she said.