We’re asking thought leaders, business people and creatives to talk about 2022 and give us catalyzing ideas for making St. Pete a better place to live. What should our city look like? What are their hopes, their plans, their problem-solving ideas? This is Catalyze 2022.
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller firmly states that next year “will be the biggest year in public transportation in Tampa Bay.”
A major reason: The SunRunner, the region’s first-ever bus rapid transit system, will open in 2022.
PSTA has been working on developing the $44 million SunRunner project for several years. The planned 10.3-mile line will connect through St. Petersburg, South Pasadena and St. Pete Beach on semi-dedicated lanes.
Bus rapid transit differs from traditional bus operations by incorporating on-level boarding and having a higher bus frequency as there are a limited number of stations. Once opened, the SunRunner will have 15 double-sided stations, creating a total of 30 stops.
“You are going to see the city council be presented with some recommendations on transit-oriented developments to change the land-use codes to take advantage of potential development at the stations,” Miller said.
Transit-oriented development, referred to as TOD, is seen throughout major metros where BRT and train stops have surrounding developments from multifamily to Class A offices. TOD can also be found within Florida at the SunRail stations in Central Florida and in South Florida where the high-speed train Brightline operates.
“The biggest difference between the SunRunner and traditional buses is it will have a dedicated lane. It’s not going to change routes like other buses. A developer is less inclined to build around traditional bus stops because they can move, but with fixed guideways, they are there permanently and economic development can be incentivized around the stations,” Miller said. “Land use codes can be updated and provide more parking to handle more intense activities.”
The first SunRunner station was unveiled earlier this month on the corner of 1st Avenue and 5th Street North in downtown St. Petersburg.
It will also be where the first TOD will be located. The DeNunzio Group is planning to build a 28-story development at 450 1st Ave. N., fronting the new station.
The hi-rise project includes a 120-room hotel, 163 residential units, Class A office space, retail and parking that can be used by the public.
In addition to the SunRunner and real estate opportunities it will generate, PSTA is also making a significant facelift to its fleet.
The PSTA board approved an agreement with California-based Gillig LLC to provide 60 electric buses that will replace PSTA’s fleet.
The entire project to replace the fleet, including the chargers, will cost $80 million. The goal is to purchase zero-emission electric buses subject to the availability of funds. The organization currently operates six all-electric, green buses.
“It’s so gratifying to see these projects physically come here,” Miller said, recalling the long journey to cross the finish line.
Miller heavily credits the success of the electric fleet to the partnership with Duke Energy.
“The conversations with Duke started a year ago when they invested in the chargers for our two first electric buses. They funded the chargers at the base facility. Induction chargers are being installed in downtown St. Pete and Clearwater. It allows us to run electric buses at a much broader range,” he said.
Duke Energy is also working to increase power at PSTA’s facility by installing solar panels. Miller said this will quadruple the electric power and therefore, will help decrease the need for diesel fuel for buses that aren’t fully electric.
PSTA has also been dabbling in the autonomous vehicle sector, as its partnership with Beep Inc. has allowed autonomous shuttles to be deployed throughout Pinellas County. The shuttle program, dubbed AVA, recently launched its third pilot phase in Clearwater Beach.
“We are going to continue learning more about the AVA program in 2022 and possibly have another pilot. The pilots have been a fantastic way for tourists and residents to experience autonomous driving,” Miller said.
PSTA and Beep have gained knowledge of the challenges of federal regulatory approval to get AVA approved in each city and on every street.
Off the street, PSTA is interested in securing funding for a permanent ferry operation in Tampa Bay.
Miller said PSTA is working with Forward Pinellas and Pinellas County on the idea. Today, there are several ferry operations such as the seasonal Cross-Bay Ferry that links Tampa and St. Petersburg, and the Clearwater ferry.
Meanwhile, PSTA is closely watching the progress on the newly signed infrastructure bill that was passed into law, representing a $1.2 trillion package.
The funds could significantly help PSTA achieve its goals of acquiring more electric buses over time, and other projects.