The free Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus service between St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach will come to an early end on Oct. 1, after the board voted on Thursday morning.
The bus ticket will be $2.25 starting Oct. 1. The free SunRunner fare was never meant to be permanent and would have ended in November, but recent alleged crimes stirred St. Pete Beach residents and businesses to action, with some calling for a mid-September fare.
The free SunRunner bus service was popular, and will soon hit 1 million riders. The service was kicked off in October 2022.
But recent alleged misbehavior by people who are homeless angered St. Pete Beach residents and businesses. The Thursday morning meeting stretched for three hours and included advocates for the homeless. But many of the speakers say they are angry at increased crime and drug needles on the beach.
There was no problem at first, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, speaking to the board. But around March, the homeless population began using the free service to St. Pete Beach more regularly, and began spending nights there, after traveling from St. Petersburg.
Gualtieri says some within the homeless population soon began misusing the bus service and would stand naked or would urinate at places near where tourists could rinse their feet at St. Pete Beach. Gualtieri blamed the aspect of the homeless population that does not want help and that chooses such a lifestyle. He told the PSTA board that the county's efforts have actually lowered homelessness.
But as 2023 went on, some of the homeless population spent days and nights on the beach, and "enablers" were attracting more homeless to the St. Pete Beach tourism areas. Gualtieri says he had to respond with enforcement against misbehavior, starting in the previous month. Such enforcement is costing Pinellas taxpayers $10,000 a week, Gualtieri says, acknowledging he did not like the strategy.
In one month, Pinellas County deputies made 52 arrests, issued 132 trespass warnings and wrote 32 ordinance violations. Gualtieri says St. Pete Beach is safe, as the violations are "social crimes," such as public urination.
"The only thing that is up is theft," says Gualtieri.
Police calls to the Dolphin Village Shopping Center are up 535% compared to a couple of months ago, says Gualtieri, noting the shopping center is near a SunRunner stop.
The board approved the fare implementation by a 12-2 vote.