ST. PETERSBURG — The sky darkened Monday morning as transit supporters pulled masks across their faces and picked up teal shovels to break ground on the region’s first bus rapid transit line.
The threat of wind and rain contrasted with the bright colors of the SunRunner bus, featuring the iconic “MR SUN” character beaming down on damp officials.
But spirits soared even as speeches were shortened. State and local officials praised the $44 million project, which will connect downtown St. Petersburg with the beaches when it’s scheduled to start running in early 2022.
“It is the start of a new way of thinking about our transportation network in the Tampa Bay region,” Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority chief executive Brad Miller told the crowd at the site of a future Tropicana Field stop. “It is a fantastic day. The rain can’t stop us from having a fantastic SunRunner event.”
The 10.3-mile route will have 16 stops. Buses will run every 15 min in their own lane on First Avenues North and South before turning onto Pasadena Avenue South and traveling down Gulf Boulevard.
Bus rapid transit is a term for a route that has its own dedicated lane, fewer stops and quicker boarding. Half of the project will be paid for with federal dollars, which President Donald Trump allocated in May. The rest is paid for by the Florida Department of Transportation, the transit authority and the City of St. Petersburg.
Though the project has strong support from St. Pete leaders and regional transit supporters, it faced heavy opposition in St. Pete Beach. Residents and elected officials opposed the original size of the buses and a previous plan that had the route run all the way to the Don Cesar Hotel. A revised route has it turning around at St. Pete Beach Park, near 47th Avenue.
St. Pete Beach Mayor Al Johnson attended the groundbreaking. He said he wishes the route would end at 75th Avenue instead of traveling down Gulf Boulevard at all, but he’s accepted the project and is glad to see some concessions made by the transit authority.
“Personally, I think we need to be connected to downtown by some sort of mass transit,” Johnson said. “My problem with the initial design was we’re not a big city. ... It wasn’t sized for us.
“We’ve talked our way into something we can live with.”
State Rep. Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport, represents the beach communities and said she was glad to see staff at the transit authority working with them on stop locations and other features, like crosswalks.
“If we do regional transit right and we actually partner with the local communities, that will instill a lot of confidence moving forward to ensure future success with similar projects,” Webb said. “We can give the local communities what they want and need.”
Webb said she was happy to see the transit authority agree to add a crosswalk at the Fred Held Habitat nature preserve off South Pasadena and put a stop at the Dolphin Village shopping center in St. Pete Beach. The Dolphin Village stop, she said, will help with redevelopment.
Here are the stops currently planned for the SunRunner.
- Gulf Boulevard and 47th Avenue (St. Pete Beach Park/Dolphin Village)
- Gulf Boulevard and 55th Avenue (Tradewinds Island Resorts)
- Gulf Boulevard and Corey Avenue (Corey Avenue Shopping District)
- Pasadena Avenue South and Sun Island Drive (Fred Held Habitat)
- Pasadena Avenue South and Gulfport Boulevard South (South Pasadena Shopping Center)
- 66th Street North and Central Avenue
- First Avenues North and South and 58th Street (Bear Creek Park)
- First Avenues North and South and 49th Street
- First Avenues North and South and 40th Street
- First Avenues North and South and 32nd Street (Walmart, United States Postal Service)
- First Avenues North and South and 22nd Street (Grand Central District)
- First Avenues North and South and 13th Street (Tropicana Field)
- First Avenues North and South and Eighth Street (Edge District)
- First Avenues North and South and Fifth Street (Pinellas County Clerk of Court, Florida Holocaust Museum)
- Third Avenue South and Fourth Street South (Avanti Apartments)
- Sixth Avenue South and 3rd Street South (University of South Florida, St. Pete campus)