Fare-free SunRunner could end to keep homeless riders off St. Pete Beach

Amid pressure from Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and St. Pete Beach residents, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority may impose fares sooner than planned.
The SunRunner pauses at its beach access stop on Friday in St. Pete Beach. The stop has been a source of consternation for St. Pete Beach residents and officials, as well as Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who have put pressure on transit officials to impose fares on the rapid bus line in an effort to dissuade homeless people from riding it.
The SunRunner pauses at its beach access stop on Friday in St. Pete Beach. The stop has been a source of consternation for St. Pete Beach residents and officials, as well as Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who have put pressure on transit officials to impose fares on the rapid bus line in an effort to dissuade homeless people from riding it. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]
Published Aug. 21|Updated Aug. 25

Pinellas County’s transit agency could introduce fares on the popular SunRunner rapid bus route, which has been free to ride since its inception, sooner than planned.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority planned to charge regular fares beginning in November, at the conclusion of the downtown St. Petersburg-to-St. Pete Beach route’s first year. But the possibility that the authority’s board members could vote Wednesday to move up that timeline has little to do with the money the agency stands to make.

Instead, it comes in response to pressure from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and residents of St. Pete Beach. They say the fare-free bus service also has proven popular among homeless people. Residents of one of the county’s wealthiest enclaves depict those riders as troublesome and potentially violent; in reality, officials said, they’re mostly getting in trouble for panhandling or sleeping on the beach.

One option the board will weigh Wednesday is to move up the entire timeline on charging full fares to the line. Another is to add a 50-cent fare just on beach-bound routes west of downtown; transit authority CEO Brad Miller said he believes that a nominal fare, not payable by cash, would dissuade homeless riders.

The idea of imposing a fare to target a particular class of people has troubled some officials, though.

“It’s redlining,” transit authority board member Vince Cocks said in an interview. “It doesn’t sell a good image to the public, that that’s how we’re trying to deal with the homeless situation, where they can’t ride public transportation when everyone else can.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said in an interview last week that he opposed the 50-cent idea. In a subsequent letter to Miller, he wrote he doesn’t doubt that problems exist but has “concerns about this approach, both in terms of its potential effectiveness and equity.”

And the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas is urging the transit authority to keep the line free. In a news release, the nonprofit said the 50-cent fare idea “has far-reaching implications that cannot be ignored” and that would deepen economic inequities.

But board members have also said they feel they have to do something, amid pressure from residents and from Gualtieri. Since last month, the sheriff said his agency has spent tens of thousands of dollars on extra patrols and arrested more than two dozen homeless people near the SunRunner’s beach access stop.

“Unless somebody’s got a better solution, the solution is implementing a fare,” he said. “Does the PSTA board want to spend $10,000 a week on deputies throwing (homeless people) in jail?”

Opposed from the start

When the SunRunner debuted last October, the transit authority planned to keep it fare-free for its first six months, in part as a way of attracting people who weren’t already public transit users. By February, the 10.3-mile route had proven to be one of Tampa Bay’s most used bus services, and the agency’s board voted to keep it free for an additional six months.

The idea of keeping it free for even longer has been floated, too, with the St. Petersburg City Council considering a budget item that would pay riders’ fares into next year.

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The St. Pete Beach City Council initially opposed the route, until the transit authority agreed to use smaller buses and a shorter route. At the route’s 100-day mark, though, then-Mayor Al Johnson praised it, saying it’s “been beneficial to us.”

Johnson lost a reelection bid in March. The new mayor, Adrian Petrila, is the founder of Protect St. Pete Beach, a political action committee that opposes the SunRunner being free and has encouraged residents to complain to the transit authority; he stepped down as its chairperson in April, public records show.

In an interview, he said he’s upset about the extension of the free-fare window, and he wants full fares added to the route as a matter of principle.

“Ultimately (the transit authority is) going to have to do what they said they were going to do,” he said. “It’s Being An Adult 101.”

Protect St. Pete Beach did not respond to a request for comment. On its website, it claims the SunRunner “has high costs that are threatening our community” in the form of “criminal elements.” Those comments were echoed by residents at a transit authority board meeting last month. Some said they believe it’s a pipeline for drugs. One resident, who gave her name as Jill Kashner, said she feared someone would throw a Molotov cocktail into her window.

Gualtieri and Miller both said they’ve seen no data to suggest that the SunRunner is responsible for a rise in violent crime.

A matter of perception

Most of the conflict boils down to two activities, Gualtieri said: people looking to sleep on the beach and people panhandling at a shopping center near the beach drop-off. His deputies have issued more than 100 trespassing warnings since last month, he said.

“Serious crime — murders, rapes, robberies, armed crime and stuff — that’s not up out there,” Gualtieri said, but that’s how those complaining perceive it. “The tourists and residents being accosted by these people, that’s how they feel.”

Some board members noted that the conflict could wane with the seasons. James Bradford, the transit authority’s chief operating officer, said homeless riders are using the free buses to escape this summer’s brutal heat during the day, then sleeping on the beach, where it’s a few degrees cooler than downtown, before riding back to St. Petersburg in the morning. Board member Joshua Shulman said that, even if sleeping on the beach is illegal, he has a hard time seeing it as a quality-of-life issue for St. Pete Beach residents.

“If someone’s coming down to my neighborhood at 11 o’clock and sleeping on the grass and leaving at 6 a.m., I don’t know anything about it,” he said.

The free fares on the SunRunner also provide crucial access to transportation for low-income residents of Pinellas, the Homeless Leadership Alliance said in its news release, and adding fares would be “effectively sidelining those who are already marginalized, including residents experiencing homelessness.”

Miller doesn’t want to dissuade anyone from taking the SunRunner, he told board members — he’s in the business of getting people to ride the bus. He had hoped to solve the problem without implementing fares, by adding security, he said. But he felt he had no choice.

Gualtieri, he said, told him to come up with a fare plan by Aug. 15 or else the sheriff would “come to the PSTA board and force a big thing about how SunRunner either needs to be eliminated or changed dramatically.” Gualtieri said in an interview that he told Miller that if the agency didn’t act, he would start calling board members to force the issue.

Board members have so far resisted. At meetings of the transit authority’s finance and planning committees last week, they roundly decried the idea as a knee-jerk reaction to a complex circumstance. Along with concerns about equity and the outward appearance of targeting homeless riders, some board members said they saw Gualtieri’s demand as an overreach of his authority.

“I like Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, and there’s an issue and we need to deal with it,” said board member and Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers. “But he can’t come to our board and tell us to do something and mandate it any more than we can mandate something to the sheriff’s office.”

Some officials noted an irony in the fact that the beach city — one of only a few Pinellas municipalities where residents don’t pay a property tax to support the transit authority — is among the parties forcing an issue. If the city wants change, Cocks said, it needs to do its own work.

“I think those citizens out there are used to getting what they want, how they want it, when they want it,” he said. “And life doesn’t work that way.”