The vehicles have been purchased, the designs finalized and now Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit system has an official opening date: Oct. 21.
The SunRunner, a 16-stop line, will shuttle passengers between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach in 35 minutes each way — about 30% faster than current bus service, according to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. Riding will be free for the first six months of operation, and then $2.25 one way.
“We think it will be a catalyst for other rapid transit lines that we’ll be bringing forth throughout Pinellas County and the whole region,” Brad Miller, chief executive of Pinellas County’s transit agency, said Wednesday morning outside agency headquarters.
Construction began on the 10.3-mile route in August 2020 and the project was initially slated for completion this summer.
Low-emission, hybrid electric buses will run every 15 minutes during the day in their own lane on First Avenue North and South before turning onto Pasadena Avenue South and traveling down Gulf Boulevard. In the evening, buses will run every 30 minutes.
Bus rapid transit is a term for a route that has its own dedicated lane, fewer stops and quicker boarding. It’s pitched as combining the capacity and speed of a metro with the lower cost of a bus system.
The turquoise buses feature bike racks, free Wi-Fi and large “Mr. Sun” logos, designed by local artist Chad Mize, smiling on the exterior.
The SunRunner has garnered broad-base support in a region long gridlocked over plans for public transit. Colleges, business leaders, local and state officials and regional transit supporters have championed the project as a step toward reducing the growing problems of congestion and harmful emissions.
“This is the start,” said Pat Gerard, chair of the board of directors of Pinellas county’s transit agency, Wednesday morning. “This is what is going to work here.”
But the project 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.
Half the funding for the $41 million project comes from federal tax dollars, a quarter from the state and the rest from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and the city of St. Petersburg. Every $1 invested in public transit generates $5 in economic benefit, according to a 2020 American Public Transportation Association study.
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“There’s no excuse not to get on it,” Miller said at the announcement event Wednesday morning, the Mr. Sun character beaming down at the crowd. He hopes tourists and locals alike will give the SunRunner a chance. “And bring your swimsuit.”