ST. PETERSBURG — Under a still-dark, early-morning sky, Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit system rumbled alive Friday, opening to the public 15 years after local transportation leaders first pitched the project as a potential antidote to the city’s growing congestion and parking woes.
Behind the wheel of the $44-million project connecting downtown St. Petersburg with South Pasadena and St. Pete Beach along a 10.3-mile route was 69-year-old Jeffrey Thompson, smiling as he pulled up to the Sixth Avenue South stop. Dozens clambered aboard, including three passengers with bicycles. “Welcome everyone,” he said.
Many of those boarding at 6 a.m. said they were lured in by curiosity and the promise of promotional “gold cards” offering discounts to local businesses, handed out to the first 500 riders.
“I ride the bus every morning and I ain’t never seen this many people on it,” Jibreel Mills said as he stepped inside, prompting giggles from knowing passengers crammed together and abuzz with excitement rarely found aboard public transit in Tampa Bay. “I thought I was in New York for a minute.”
Mills, a 62-year old construction worker who does not own a car, was in high spirits, even though the launch of the SunRunner disrupts his usual commute. He used to take the No. 18 bus all the way to work, but the county bus agency has cut it short to increase efficiency and reduce overlap with the new route. Now, Mills said he will take the SunRunner part of the way, and then change buses. “Having to change is a pain, but I’m excited for better beach access.”
The SunRunner buses, with “Mr. Sun” emblazoned on the side, are scheduled to run every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes in the evening.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday afternoon, local and national transportation leaders voiced hope that the SunRunner will usher in a new era for the region, serving as a catalyst for additional projects connecting with North Pinellas, Tampa and beyond.
“This is the first bus rapid transit system — hopefully not the last,” said David Gwynn, the state’s regional transportation secretary.
“The SunRunner will provide a premium transit option — something we’ve never had before,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch. “This is what progress looks like.”
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Seven hybrid electric buses in a fleet of nine, leaving two for contingency, are now on the road. Following a fare-free six months, SunRunner passengers will pay either $2.25 for one-way trips or $5 for all-day riding.
A federal grant funded half of the SunRunner’s capital costs, the state paid for 25%, and the county’s transit agency and the city of St. Petersburg contributed the remaining 25%.
The buses are equipped with bike racks and WiFi that some passengers had difficulty connecting to Friday morning. Also inside are digital screens displaying the weather forecast and upcoming stops.
Thompson steered the inaugural bus along its rust-red asphalt lane, the sun slowly creeping above the horizon, and then onto St. Pete Beach, where the city commission passed a resolution in 2019 opposed to the bus coming onto the island and requested the Federal Transit Administration put the project on hold.
In compromising with the city, the county transit agency downsized the height of its buses and agreed to the SunRunner turning around at the County Park at 46th Avenue, rather than at the Don CeSar hotel.
From inside the bus, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority director of project management Abhishek Dayal said the opening was “an incredible culmination of hard work” and expressed excitement about future possibilities.
Like many rapid transit projects found across metros from D.C. to Kansas City, local leaders are eying new zoning along the route for increased density. The county’s transit agency hired a design consulting firm to evaluate the potential transit-oriented development.
“Today is extremely gratifying,” Dayal said as the bus pushed on.
On board, there are no buttons to press or cords to pull to alert the driver you’d like to get off, which stirred confusion among some passengers Friday morning. Instead, the bus is supposed to stop at ever station “like a train,” Dayal said.
But the maiden voyage was running behind schedule, so the driver drove past some of the final stops en route to the beach in an effort to save time, to the annoyance of a rider who missed his connection with another bus to reach his job.
Sitting nearby was Thomas Sullivan, a 69-year old who has lived in St. Petersburg for three years. He is excited to at long last have a connection from downtown to one of the county’s most popular beaches. “I’m retired but I don’t just sit on a lounge chair. I like to stay active,” he said, adding he expects to ride the new route daily.
“I haven’t driven anything other than the occasional golf cart since 1974,” he said. Since moving to the area he’s dipped his toes in the Gulf of Mexico only once. He hopes that will now change.
An hour after departing, more than 20 minutes behind schedule, the bus glided into its final stop,
“I think it went well, and it’s only going to get better,” said Thompson, the bus driver.
Passengers, clasping their gold cards, stepped off the bus under a sky slowly turning from ink to periwinkle blue.
Over the intercom, a voice said: “Thank you for riding.”