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Looper 2.0 will make it easier and cheaper for downtown residents to get around

Margie Manning

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The changing face of downtown St. Petersburg is prompting a revamped and expanded Downtown Looper, a trolley service that historically has connected museums and hotels near the waterfront.

“Looper 2.0” will provide a 72 percent increase in service, said Evan Mory, the city’s director of transportation and parking management.

Starting Sunday, Oct. 7, the Downtown Looper will have a longer route, adding stops in the Innovation District just south of downtown. It will run earlier in the morning and later at night, and will eliminate the current 50-cent fee to ride, Cassandra Borchers, chief development officer at Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, told St. Petersburg City Council members earlier this month.

“It will have a significant impact on those who live, work and play downtown,” said Eric Carlson, transportation director for the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.

The current service runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and 10 a.m. to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. The new service will run 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 7 a.m. to midnight on Fridays, 8 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. It also will be free.

It will expand by 15 to 20 stops, adding Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and University Village, allowing downtown residents to take the Looper to Publix, Carlson said.

Nine of the 20 Looper stops will be at PSTA stops, making it easy for riders downtown to get “last mile” service, he said.

An expanded Looper service also can be a tool to attract and retain downtown businesses, because it means those companies don’t have to worry about parking resources, Carlson said.

PSTA, along with the Florida Department of Transportation, the city and the Downtown Partnership,  started re-imaging downtown circulation about two years ago, taking into account the growth in people who live downtown and increased employment, Borchers said.

“You all know the development that has happened downtown and how it has changed. But over the past 20 years, the Looper route has not,” she said.

The earlier route was not planned by transportation planners, said Councilwoman Darden Rice. “It was a subscription route and the bus went where businesses paid to have a stop. Over time, that maybe wasn’t the great route to have.”

Rice called it a long overdue change for downtown transportation, and Councilwoman Gina Driscoll, who lives downtown, said she was likely to use it more frequently to get around.

There are no plans at this time to extend the looper service west of 5th Street, including to apartments under construction in the Edge district, Borchers said in response to a question from Councilman Charlie Gerdes.

“We have a number of services that serve that area and we are excited to bring the Central Avenue BRT [bus rapid transit] on 1st Avenue North and 1st Avenue South to the area you are describing,” Borchers told Gerdes.

Because the new Downtown Looper route is longer, there will be an additional vehicle on the route, to maintain the 15-minute interval at each stop, Borchers said. The route will have two trolleys from the Downtown Looper fleet and an electric bus from PSTA. It’s the first electric bus in the PSTA system and it is emissions-free, Borchers said.

There will be a charging station for the bus at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said David Metz, an economic development officer for USF St. Pete.

“We are the southern-most property in the United States to have these vehicles, so part of what we’re doing in putting it in downtown St. Petersburg is testing the longevity of the battery,” Borchers said. “We’ve put into the system longer recovery times in order for the charging station to charge up the battery. It gives us a chance to play around with the technology without interrupting the service.”

PSTA plans an Oct. 3 event at City Hall, unveiling its new electric bus.

PSTA has received a $900,000, three-year service development grant from FDOT that will be used to help fund operations, Borchers said. The cost of operations for the first year is $1.16 million with $300,000 from FDOT, $353,358 from the city $389,943 from PSTA and $114,242 from the Downtown Partnership.

The Downtown Partnership is working to bring in additional dollars, to lower public funding, Borchers said.

“We’ll do our best to continue to seek dollars to bring down the public costs,” said Carlson.

The St. Petersburg City Council approved the funding agreement Sept. 6, as well as a separate agreement providing $175,000 for The Looper Group, a non-profit administrative group that runs the Looper, to purchase a new trolley, replacing an aging vehicle.

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