The traffic lanes are paved with rust-red asphalt, the drivers are trained, the new buses with “Mr. Sun’' emblazoned on the side are ready — and history will be made Friday when SunRunner debuts as a new, faster option to travel between downtown St. Petersburg and the beach.
SunRunner is the Tampa Bay region’s first rapid transit system of any kind, and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and our partners traveled a long road to get here. We expect this service to be the first step toward creating a robust, modern transit system that will serve all of Tampa Bay and enable the region to be even more competitive with other urban areas for good jobs, new businesses and more visitors.
We can’t wait for our residents, workers and tourists to try SunRunner. The brightly painted buses will run between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach in the rust-red lanes along First Avenue N and S. Rides will be free for the first six months, and seven days a week the buses will run every 15 minutes from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and every 30 minutes from 8 p.m. to midnight. The service will be fast, consistent and comfortable, saving riders time and money that would be spent on gas and parking for their own vehicles.
This is not your grandmother’s bus service. SunRunner buses will operate in specially marked bus-and-turn lanes that will be free of other traffic, and traffic signals will be timed at intersections to limit delays. The creative SunRunner stations feature unique art and screens that show when the next bus arrives. Customers also can track bus arrival times in real time on the Transit App.
The new hybrid electric buses are quieter, produce fewer emissions than diesel-powered buses and have more amenities. They feature interior bike storage spaces, free Wi-Fi and phone-charging stations. SunRunner will be attractive to all sorts of riders, from workers who need to get to jobs at beach hotels or downtown, to students at St. Petersburg College and the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus. It will be an easy alternative for both tourists and residents to get to the beach, or to hop across the city to stores and restaurants without searching for parking.
As we celebrate SunRunner’s opening, it’s important to remember what it took to get here. It takes years to design, fund and establish new transit systems. A bus rapid transit line along this route was first proposed 15 years ago. It also takes true partnerships with elected leaders and all levels of government to secure the necessary approvals and funding. A federal grant is paying for half of SunRunner’s capital costs, the state is paying for 25 percent, and PSTA and the city of St. Petersburg is paying the remaining 25 percent.
Let’s also look toward the future. SunRunner will benefit everyone — residents and tourists, students and workers, businesses and residential neighborhoods. It also will create more economic development and housing opportunities. St. Petersburg is working on zoning changes that will attract more investment around the SunRunner stops, with the new density intended to reflect the character of that particular downtown area or residential neighborhood.
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As Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit project, SunRunner should be a catalyst for additional service that would connect with North Pinellas, Tampa and the entire region. Rapid transit service in vibrant urban areas such as Seattle, Charlotte and Indianapolis started like ours and pursued expansion after residents tried it, liked it and wanted more.
The opening of SunRunner is an historic accomplishment for our community — and it should be the first step toward a modern regional transit system that ensures all of Tampa Bay continues to flourish in a 21st century economy.
Brad Miller is the chief executive officer of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.