ST. PETERSBURG — Charging riders for trips on the previously free SunRunner rapid bus line has had the intended effect, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Wednesday.
Calls for service in St. Pete Beach — where residents had complained of homeless SunRunner riders sleeping on the beach, panhandling and bathing and urinating in public — plummeted in October. That was the first month in which the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority imposed a regular fare on the SunRunner, which goes between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach.
“Problem solved,” Gualtieri said Wednesday during a meeting of the Transit Authority’s board of directors. “Implementing the fare fixed it. It worked.”
The agency had planned to keep the line free through the end of October, which marked its first year in service. But it added fares early after a public outcry and at the urging of Gualtieri. That in turn led homeless advocates and some community members to beseech the authority to keep the line free.
Gualtieri pinpointed two locations that had dramatic increases in calls for service from the eight months leading up to the SunRunner’s launch in 2022 to the same time period in 2023: the beach access point where the SunRunner line terminates, where he said calls increased by more than 700%, and a nearby shopping center, where calls went up by almost 450%. A nearby 7-Eleven also had a smaller spike in calls.
There were 76 calls for service to the beach access in August and 84 September, he said. In October, after the fare was implemented, there were two. Calls at the shopping center dropped from 40 in August and 24 in September to eight in October.
“I’m happy,” Gualtieri said. “The residents and citizens that we all serve and the tourists that are coming in there — the feedback is that everything is good.”
Board member Joshua Shulman asked Gualtieri to evaluate the transit authority’s response to the complaints about homeless riders. It was a pointed question, with state Rep. Linda Chaney having filed a bill that would downsize the transit authority board based in part on accusations that it hasn’t been accountable enough to residents. Chaney, a Republican, lives in St. Pete Beach.
Gualtieri said he wished the change had happened earlier — his agency spent $10,000 a week for several weeks to increase patrols in the area, he said — but, in general, he was satisfied.
“We came to a good place through cooperation,” he said.
The homeless-rider controversy was the latest chapter in a history of opposition to the SunRunner and the transit authority by St. Pete Beach. The city is one of only a few Pinellas municipalities where residents do not pay taxes to support the transit authority. It still receives bus service, though, and its mayor, Adrian Petrila, sits on the transit authority board as a representative for several beach communities. He did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.