ST. PETERSBURG — Three months after its much-anticipated launch, the turquoise bus rolled down First Avenue North, bustling with a slice of Pinellas County life. On stepped retirees, traveling to appointments with doctors and visits with friends. Then beachgoers, hoping to soak up the last of the day’s sunshine. And as the bus looped back toward downtown, soon joined a cluster of hotel staff, wearing name tags and expressions of exhaustion.
In its first 100 days of operation, the SunRunner, which shuttles between St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg, has emerged as one of the region’s most-used bus services, surprising some of its initial opponents and encouraging development along some of its route. It’s free to ride for now.
High expectations were part of the sales pitch for the SunRunner — Tampa Bay’s first venture into bus rapid transit, a mode of transportation considered a cheaper alternative to light rail. But it’s still more expensive than regular bus service because it requires a designated lane.
A promise of high ridership justified the transit service’s $43.9 million price tag for capital costs, or $4.3 million per mile.
Even as senior county transit officials say the route is exceeding ridership goals, the bus service hasn’t come close to what local officials were promised.
In a report to the St. Petersburg City Council last June, 4,000 rides a day were touted. Not once in its first 100 days of operation did the route carry that many passengers, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of agency data. (Mass transit ridership is measured in rides, not actual passengers. Every time someone boards, it counts as a ride. A single passenger traveling roundtrip on SunRunner counts as two rides.)
On 12 of its first 100 days, the route carried more than 3,000 rides, the projection the agency included in its federal grant application. All but three of those days were Saturdays.
Ridership is, however, climbing: In December, the route logged over 80,000 rides, equal to about 2,617 per day, about 170 more than the month before and the highest of any county bus route.
The Tampa Bay Times spoke with more than 30 people along its path. Some were frequent riders of other routes. Others hadn’t stepped foot on a public bus in Florida. All agreed they would soon be riding again — whether out of necessity, habit or choice.
Among the passengers was Sylvia Hardy, 42. She takes two trips five days a week, shuttling between home and the downtown Publix where she works. “My commute is faster now,” said Hardy, who does not own a car. She also rides to Walmart, Family Dollar and elsewhere, hopping off at Grand Central Station to connect with other routes crisscrossing the county.
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Brad Miller, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO, said he had three goals for the service: to provide a growing population premium public transportation; to drive economic development along the route; and to be popular enough with riders that it could spur similar lines across the region.
For now, he said, he’s thrilled to see the route “attracting folks that don’t normally ride public transit.”
Across the region, riding a bus is regarded as a last resort. But on a balmy mid-January afternoon, the SunRunner was a 10.3-mile equalizer, moving the young, the old, the public-transit dependent and the public-transit curious, tourists and commuters.
Paige Patton-Radel moved to Pinellas in June 2021 and watched with intrigue as the SunRunner stations were built. Her family gave it a try on a Saturday last month.
“The ride to downtown couldn’t have been nicer,” said Patton-Radel, 42. “It was a beautiful moment of humanity.”
The 40-foot, hybrid electric buses use a dedicated lane for two-thirds of its loop to deliver a service more like light rail. Motorists are permitted in the lanes for up to one block when making a turn or merging after turning, accessing driveways, businesses or parking.
A Facebook post from the city of St. Petersburg last summer about the lanes was met with hundreds of disgruntled comments. The transit agency spent more than $20,000 on an explanatory video, part of a marketing launch campaign that cost about $205,000, according to public records.
Yolanda Fernandez, a spokesperson for the St. Petersburg Police Department, said she could not say how many tickets the department has issued for lane misuse, but added officers see drivers comply and are generally issuing warnings “unless they see something egregious.” The change in traffic pattern didn’t lead to any uptick in crashes, Fernandez said.
The SunRunner curls through South Pasadena and onto Treasure Island, with about 50,000 jobs and 40,000 residents located within a half-mile of the route. Its westernmost terminus is steps from the sand, in a St. Pete Beach parking lot where hourly rates are $3.75.
Back in 2019, the St. Pete Beach City Commission passed a resolution opposed to the bus coming onto the island.
“Too many stops, too big a bus and too frequent,” Mayor Al Johnson recalled of his initial impressions of the route. Compromising, the transit agency downsized its vehicles and agreed to the SunRunner turning around a mile sooner at 46th Avenue, rather than at the Don CeSar Hotel.
Three months after launching, Johnson said he is pleased, believing the SunRunner is a worthy complement to the city’s network of electric scooters, shuttles and golf carts.
“It’s been a minimal disruption to the traffic,” he said. “It’s been beneficial to us.”
Still, discontent lingers. First Avenue North and First Avenue South comprise a key east-west corridor. The loss of a general traffic lane there stirred frustration, especially among those who don’t live within walking distance of a SunRunner stop.
Bike lanes along portions of the avenues were removed and cyclists were redirected to Central Avenue, a shift that is “far from ideal,” said John Sinibaldi, president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club.
“It was difficult to give those lanes up, but I see the importance of this new route,” said Sinibaldi, who had used the bike lanes for three decades.
To improve access to the downtown waterfront, the transit agency is hoping to add an additional stop near the St. Peter Pier, using unspent federal funds after the project came in about $5.3 million under budget.
South Pasadena Mayor Arthur Penny welcomed the expansion news. He and his wife have taken the route downtown to watch a play and visit the waterfront, he said. “We were amazed at the number of people on the bus,” he told the Times.
The route opened to the public in October, decades after transportation leaders first pitched the project as a potential antidote to the area’s growing congestion.
There has long been discussion of expanded bus rapid transit across the region, but specifics remain vague. The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, which had been created more than a generation ago to create a regional network, agreed in January to disband. It couldn’t overcome parochial concerns in planning a 41-mile bus rapid transit project linking three counties along interstates 75 and 275.
The SunRunner’s immediate future is clear: It will soon cost passengers to board. Standard fares of $2.25 for one-way trips or $5 for all-day riding are set to begin in April.
But transit officials are eyeing ways to keep the route free.
Riders said they would pay to use the service. “We’re kind of spoiled with it being free right now,” said Selmar Salter, 32, who takes the route to work.
He, and others interviewed, expressed both sympathy and frustration with those sleeping on the bus. “Sometimes it feels like a hotel on wheels,” he said.
Many riders said the route had encouraged them to explore new locales. Thomas Sullivan, a 69-year-old retired veteran who lives in St. Petersburg, was aboard the SunRunner for its October debut. He has ridden it every day since.
He said he could live with family on Florida’s Treasure Coast for less. “But what I’d be saving in rent I’d be spending on Lyft and Ubers, and the SunRunner helps me keep my sense of independence, which is better not only for my physical health but my mental health as well,” he said, having just taken the route home from a glass-blowing class. He’d be back on the bus tomorrow.