The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has agreed to start charging SunRunner riders, despite the potential loss of funding supporting the currently fare-free service.
After a heated three-hour-plus discussion Wednesday, the PSTA board cast a 13-to-2 vote passing a new motion from member Rene Flowers to begin charging fares for the bus rapid transit service earlier than the initially scheduled Nov. 1 timeframe.
The move follows multiple meetings where residents and business leaders voiced concerns about homeless residents taking advantage of the free rides on the bus rapid transit system that links downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach.
Starting Oct. 1, a one-way ticket will cost $2.25, while an all-day pass will be available for $5. The fares would be paid electronically.
PSTA recently extended the free service until October. Initial conversations formed about charging a 50 cent fee.
The Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas (HLA), on behalf of the Pinellas Continuum of Care (CoC), issued a letter Monday, urging the board to dismiss the motion, stating that accepting electronic payments only has “far-reaching implications that cannot be ignored.”
“Increasing the SunRunner’s fares – even nominally – while requiring these fees be paid electronically raises concerns about equity and accessibility. Requiring payment through a card system excludes individuals without access to such technology, effectively sidelining those who are already marginalized, including residents experiencing homelessness,” the letter read.
The COC asked PSTA to “reconsider this policy and to continue inclusive practices that prioritize equitable access and foster a greater sense of community.”
The COC invited members of PSTA’s board and all concerned parties to participate in a discussion to address the concerns and work towards a resolution.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch also penned a letter opposing the fare implementation. “Removing barriers and ensuring that all passengers, especially those with income limitations and mobility difficulties, have equal access to SunRunner is necessary to realize the full potential of our return on investment,” he wrote. It’s a major supporter of economic development along the entire route and we are seeing more dense and affordable housing announced near stations every month.”
Welch highlighted how the SunRunner supports the city’s up-zoning options related to transit-oriented development, promotes reduced parking demand in the downtown core, and his belief that the service will continue and will play a key role in the redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant District.
“What fair rationale dictates that SunRunner shouldn’t remain free (when St. Petersburg is willing to make PSTA financially whole), but these other routes and programs can continue to be free?” Welch continued.
Welch noted how he included $200,000 in the fiscal year 2024 recommended budget to keep the SunRunner fare-free for an extended time.
“If SunRunner remains free to all users, I am amenable to negotiating a higher amount for year two and beyond to ensure that the buy-down is as accurate and fair as possible. Additionally, the FY 24 recommended budget includes a buy down on bus fares on all routes for transportation disadvantaged riders at a cost of $175,000,” he wrote.
“Accordingly, if PSTA decides to charge a fee to ride only a portion of the route, we will not move forward with a fare buy-down agreement. Additionally, if PSTA chooses to implement a nominal fare or decides on any policy that makes it harder for certain groups to ride while favoring other groups, we will not participate.”
During the meeting, numerous public commenters approached the board members, offering a slew of conflicting opinions.
Earlier this month, local leaders approved funneling more funds to hire extra patrols at the county park St. Pete Beach Access stop, located at 4700 Gulf Blvd.
“I’m very confident a fare will mitigate the impact. Nothing solves everything, but this is going to significantly impact it,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. “Let’s give this a shot.”