Less than 100 days after the launch of the SunRunner, which shuttles between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach, the bus service appears poised for expansion.
The 10.3-mile route, which is the region’s first bus rapid transit system, was completed around 12.3% under budget, leaving the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority with $5.3 million in federal money to funnel into related improvements. Transit officials are eying a new stop near the St. Pete Pier.
The agency, which operates the SunRunner and 41 other bus lines across the county, selected the location based on community feedback and the appeal of bringing the service to the city’s waterfront attractions, according to Abhishek Dayal, the director of project management. The extension would also connect the SunRunner to other transit modes, including e-scooters, the Downtown Looper and the Cross Bay Ferry to Tampa.
The agency’s board, now chaired by St. Petersburg City Council member Gina Driscoll, voted 12-1 in favor of allowing a contractor to conduct a cost feasibility analysis and a final design for the proposed station.
Pinellas County Commissioner Brian Scott was the lone vote against amending the existing $4.2 million contract PSTA has with the Tampa-based engineering consultant H. W. Lochner, who designed the SunRunner stations, with an increase of $220,000 to conduct the analysis.
After the vote, he told the Tampa Bay Times he’d rather the money was returned to the federal government. “Stop the bleeding,” he said, adding he doesn’t believe the SunRunner is a wise use of taxpayer dollars.
The cost for additional services requested will be fully paid for through the project savings. No PSTA budget impacts are anticipated.
PSTA could either send the unspent funds back to the federal agency or keep the money in the local economy for route improvements, Dayal said. “We picked the latter. We definitely see a lot of benefits for the stop,” he added. “It’s definitely a win-win for the SunRunner and St. Pete in general.”
The SunRunner opened last October, more than 15 years after transportation leaders first pitched the project as a potential antidote to the area’s growing congestion and parking woes. A federal grant funded half of its capital costs, the state paid for 25%, and the county’s transit agency and the city of St. Petersburg contributed the remaining 25%.
In its first month of operation, the SunRunner was the bus route with the highest ridership in the county on both weekdays and Saturdays. The route is currently free to ride.
Last month, it carried more than 80,000 rides, equal to about 2,617 per day. This falls short of the more than 3,000 rides per day the agency projected in their grant funding applications. The month before, November 2022, the SunRunner carried an average of 2,447 rides per day.
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But with fewer than four months passing since the launch, transit officials say they are enthusiastic about the public’s reception of the route. “I’m just super excited to see so many people using the system,” Dayal said. “I just want to keep that momentum going.”
A stop close to the St. Pete Pier would bring the SunRunner into a bustling pocket of downtown, which some argue could bring a boost not just for the city’s connectivity but for the connectivity of the region as a whole.
“It’s an opportunity to not just put a SunRunner station in the space, but to imagine what this space can be,” Joshua Shulman, a citizen appointee from the city of St. Petersburg on the PSTA board, said at the agency’s finance committee meeting last week.
For the proposed stop to proceed, the agency now needs the go-ahead from the Federal Transit Administration. Once the approval comes from Washington, D.C., construction can begin.