ST. PETERSBURG — The region’s first bus rapid-transit system, the SunRunner which shuttles between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach, will remain fare-free for an additional six months, the board of the Pinellas County transit agency approved Wednesday morning.
Fare collection was previously set to start in May.
Since its October debut, the 10.3-mile route has emerged as one of the region’s most-used bus services, surprising some of its initial opponents and attracting a diverse range of riders including those who hadn’t previously stepped foot on a public bus in Florida.
All Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board members present voted in favor of extending the fare-free period until November 2023 except two: Republican county commissioners Chris Latvala and Brian Scott.
In a presentation to the board Wednesday, the agency’s communication director Whitney Fox recommended the extension as an opportunity to create and launch a robust “fares education campaign” to allow for a smooth transition once fares are implemented.
“We want to make sure that no one gets left behind,” St. Petersburg City Councilperson and Pinellas transit board chair Gina Driscoll echoed.
The extended fare-free window would also allow the agency to collect a years worth of ridership data, helping the agency to make better informed operations decisions in the future, Driscoll said.
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.
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.
Brad Miller, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO, recently told the Times he has 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.”
The fares lost by extending the SunRunner fare-free window are at most $100,000, chief financial officer Debbie Leous said Wednesday.
“I don’t think anyone got their gas paid for them on their way over here this morning,” said Commissioner Scott, who voted against the extension.
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“The discussion really should be: There’s so many people that when we start collecting fares it should have a positive fiscal impact to PSTA,” he said.
Commissioner Jeff Gow described the free fares as a boost to the local economy, with passengers using the service either to get to work or reach local businesses. “They are either going to make money or going to spend it,” he said.
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.
To improve access to the downtown waterfront, the transit agency is hoping to add an additional stop near the St. Pete Pier, using unspent federal funds after the project came in about $5.3 million under budget.
When fare collection begins, SunRunner passengers will pay either $2.25 for one-way trips or $5 for all-day riding, purchased either through the Flamingo Fares app or digital card, or via contactless debit and credit card payment systems being installed on county buses.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.