Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri believes charging fares for the previously free SunRunner service has solved St. Pete Beach’s homelessness “problems.”
Gualtieri, speaking Wednesday at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s (PSTA) board meeting, said implementing the $2.25 one-way fee caused calls for assistance to plummet. In August, the board voted 13-2 to start charging for the service Oct. 1, a month earlier than initially scheduled.
Throughout the summer, myriad St. Pete Beach stakeholders expressed pointed concerns about homeless residents taking advantage of the bus rapid transit service that links downtown St. Petersburg and their coastal community. However, several community advocates, local leaders and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch opposed implementing fares on the SunRunner.
“The problem’s solved,” Gualtieri said. “It worked. What we predicted the solution would be has provided that solution.”
Gualtieri used departmental statistics to illustrate his point. He said calls to the beach access point near the SunRunner’s terminus soared by 705% after the service launched in 2022.
Calls to a nearby shopping center increased 446% during the same time. Gualtieri attributed the spike to “homeless transients” from Williams Park and other downtown St. Petersburg locations.
He said his office received 76 calls for service to the beach access in August and 84 in September. There were just two after the board implemented fares in October.
Similarly, calls to the shopping center dropped from 24 in September to eight in October. “So, a drastic improvement,” Gualtieri said.
“It’s back to where it was,” he added. “You’re going to have some of it, and it’s an acceptable level … you’re going to get a few people here or there.”
Unlike most municipalities, St. Pete Beach taxes do not support PSTA. The city still receives services.
In his Aug. 22 letter to CEO Brad Miller, Welch noted that the SunRunner relied heavily on government subsidies. He said St. Petersburg’s $4 million investment and dedicated lanes allowed PSTA to receive over $20 million in federal funding.
He also offered to pay the $200,000 in expected annual revenue from the fares. Welch wrote that St. Pete Beach enjoys a free shuttle system, and Clearwater officials recently implemented a free park-and-ride service in partnership with PSTA.
Gualtieri declined to reiterate the “unacceptable behaviors” caused by St. Petersburg’s homeless population utilizing a similar program. During previous meetings, several residents said the free trips brought crime and drugs to their idyllic community.
One speaker said she was afraid that “somebody’s going to throw a Molotov cocktail through my window.” Gualtieri told the board Wednesday that the criminal element refused to pay the $2.25 fare.
“I’m happy,” Gualtieri said. “The residents and citizens that we all serve and the tourists that are coming in there – the feedback is that everything is good.”
Board member Joshua Shulman asked the sheriff if he believed the agency helped provide a solution. Gualtieri said he hoped to implement a fare earlier but believes they reached a “happy medium” through collaboration and cooperation.
He also noted that the PCSO spent $10,000 weekly responding to additional calls for service. “I bring it up because there’s been a lot of talk about this board’s accountability to the public and other stakeholders,” Shulman responded. “I just wanted to get your opinion.”