With fanfare and speeches that wouldn’t be out of place at a political rally, the SunRunner — Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit line — debuted to the public on Thursday, Oct. 20, at a launch party in downtown St. Petersburg.
The event featured members of the St. Petersburg High School marching band, the Tampa Bay Rays and Rowdies mascots and a ribbon-cutting ceremony complete with bursts of confetti. Less than 24 hours later, at 6 a.m. Friday, the SunRunner’s first passengers boarded in St. Pete Beach for a quick trip to downtown St. Pete made possible by dedicated lanes and raised platforms for faster and safer embarking and debarking.
According to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which operates the SunRunner, more than 10,000 people used the service, which cost $44 million to build and features purpose-built, hybrid-energy buses, in its four days. The Federal Transit Administration allocated $28.1 million for the SunRunner. The Florida Department of Transportation, PSTA and the city of St. Petersburg also contributed funds.
“Today is the culmination of so much work and marks the start of a new ere here in Pinellas County,” says Yvette Taylor, the FTA’s regional administrator for Florida. She, along with several other city, county and state officials, gave speeches at the SunRunner launch. “This 10-mile line will improve access for everyone to jobs, to schools, to health care appointments and to just simply see friends and family.”
According to the PSTA, there are more than 50,000 jobs and 40,000 residents within a half mile of the SunRunner route, making it an asset not just for tourism but also economic opportunity for residents. Not everyone has reacted positively to the new BRT service. The City of St. Pete Beach opposed the SunRunner, even though the municipality bears none of the financial cost, and some residents and businesses expressed concern over growing traffic congestion along Gulf Boulevard.
From Greenlight Pinellas to All For Transportation in Hillsborough County, mass-transit initiatives in the Tampa Bay region have struggled to find traction with a majority of taxpayers, some of whom banded together under the No Tax For Tracks campaign to oppose a light-rail system. Some proposals, such as Greenlight Pinellas, failed at the ballot box, while All For Transportation, which would levy a 1% sales tax for road projects, has repeatedly faced legal challenges that have kept it off the ballot altogether.
Those setbacks, however, were clearly in the rearview mirror at the SunRunner launch. St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch was a county commissioner when Greenlight Pinellas went to a vote, and he says that initiative, while ultimately unsuccessful, “laid the foundation” for BRT.
“Those steps, as painful as they were, helped us to get to this point where we all know we live in the best community,” Welch said at the SunRunner launch event. “But apart from that, what will make that even better is if we're more accessible, more affordable, and more sustainable, and modern, efficient transit does all those things.”
To encourage people to give SunRunner a try, PSTA has made the service free for the first six months. After that, the fare will be in line with normal routes: $2.25 per ride, or $1.25 for residents who qualify for the reduced rate.
“This will be the model for more enhanced transit options in St. Petersburg and the region as a whole,” Welch said. “As our city grows, SunRunner will provide a premium transportation option, something we’ve never had before, and remove vehicles from our roads, resulting in cleaner air and less traffic congestion, as well as relief from increasing parking demands. This is what progress looks like, folks.”
Welch’s last point, about parking, is particularly salient given the booming growth of downtown St. Pete. Development of the SunRunner route necessitated the removal of on-street parking along heavily trafficked routes, but that move simultaneously allowed the city to create more lanes for bicycles, e-bikes and e-scooters, which have increasingly become popular transportation options as the city’s population trends younger.
“It’s no secret — parking is very limited in downtown and St. Pete Beach,” says Pat Gerard, a Pinellas County commissioner and PSTA board chairman. “The SunRunner is going to make it easy and convenient to get between two of Pinellas County’s most popular destinations. You won’t spend hours looking for a parking spot. Just hop on and it’ll get you there quicky.”
People of all ages, however, will appreciate the SunRunner’s many creature comforts, which include free Wi-Fi internet service, charging ports at every seat and interior bike storage. The buses are also outfitted with transmitters that communicate with traffic lights along the 10-mile, 16-stop route, causing them to turn green as the vehicles approach.
“Between that technology, having a dedicated lane and limited stops, the SunRunner is about 30% faster than current bus service,” Florida Department of Transportation District 7 Secretary David Gwynn says in a statement. “The SunRunner is unlike any other transit system in the area.”
Thanks to its traffic-priority system and frequent service — buses will arrive every 15 minutes until 8 p.m., and then every 30 minutes until midnight, seven days per week — PSTA says SunRunner users will experience a service more like light rail, rather than a traditional bus service.
“My hope,” Gerard said at the ribbon-cutting event, “is that SunRunner will connect with a new generation and show them that you don't have to have a car to live in this beautiful city. We are, by the way, the biggest metropolitan area in the country that does not have a transit system. So, we're working on it, and this is just the beginning. SunRunner shows that we need to support public transit and make an investment in transportation — we can’t keep building more roads.”
Brian Hartz holds a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University and has been a St. Petersburg resident since 2013. He has also worked for newspapers and magazines in Indiana, Canada and New Zealand.