The region’s first bus rapid transit system will reach the million-passenger mark before its first anniversary. Local leaders are now working to enhance the service.
St. Petersburg and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) officials are working to implement a new SunRunner station downtown. It will adjoin the Sundial Parking Garage, a five-minute walk from the St. Petersburg Pier.
The city council unanimously approved allocating $605,000 Thursday to build the station and install fiber optic communication lines along the 10.3-mile route to St. Pete Beach. Councilmember Gina Driscoll, who also chairs PSTA’s board, said she plans to create a program that mitigates the agency’s decision to forgo the city’s free-fare initiative.
“Before I get into that, though … any day now, we are going to be celebrating our one-millionth rider on the SunRunner,” Driscoll added. “In less than a year of operation, and that is meaningful.”
The planned station at 150 1st Ave. N. is a half-mile from the Cross Bay Ferry dock in the Vinoy Yacht Basin. Evan Mory, transportation and parking director, said the station would bring passengers “twice as close to the waterfront – if not more” than the 5th Street stop.
The council dedicated $235,000 to the project, currently in the design phase. Abhishek Dayal, director of project management for PSTA, said it is 30% complete.
Another $150,000 would fund glass art panels at the new station and two existing stops. The American Planning Association’s local affiliate awarded artist Catherine Woods, PSTA and the City of St. Petersburg for implementing the vibrant murals that adorn SunRunner shelters.
Dayal said the agency will collaborate with Weaver and the surrounding community to determine the Pier station’s artwork. “We want it to be special because it’s so close to a lot of activity centers in the area,” he said.
“As soon as the designs come in, we’ll be starting the process to engage our stakeholders.”
Mory said the new location would share a space with the Downtown Looper shuttle service. While the city will not implement a dedicated lane for that SunRunner segment, Mory said the station would eliminate a parking space or two.
However, he noted that the stop abuts a 1,300-space parking garage. “If we can afford to lose a couple of spaces anywhere downtown, that’s a good place for it,” Mory added.
He explained that the fiber optic cable project, which received $220,000, would bolster communication speed and reliability between buses, stations and PSTA offices. That would provide passengers with more accurate schedule information.
Councilmember Copley Gerdes called that initiative “amazing” and said inaccurate arrival times on the mobile application are his constituents’ only complaint. However, Mory said that is part of a countywide project that is currently over budget.
“So, the contract provides for an early refund to the city if that project doesn’t move forward,” he said.
Fares and the homeless
PSTA’s board voted 13-2 at its Aug. 23 meeting to charge $2.25 for a one-way SunRunner ticket. That starts Oct. 1, ahead of the original Nov. 1 date.
The move followed multiple meetings where St. Pete Beach residents and business owners voiced pointed concerns about homeless residents taking advantage of the free rides. Initial options included implementing a 50-cent fee not payable with cash or coins.
In addition, that would have only applied to specific stops in West St. Pete, Councilmember Copley Gerdes’ district. “The ideas that were brought forward before the last PSTA meeting were a bit upsetting,” he said.
“Not only for a portion of our community and our homeless community but also for District 1,” Gerdes added. “I just wanted to thank Councilmember Driscoll for her leadership on PSTA.”
Driscoll said the $175,000 allocated by the council and Mayor Ken Welch’s administration for a disadvantaged rider’s program would likely remain. However, city officials will strike $200,000 to keep the SunRunner free for anyone from the fiscal year 2024 budget.
Welch also offered to increase PSTA’s subsidies to no avail. Driscoll and board member Vince Cocks voted against implementing the fare.
Driscoll said she is looking at ways to use the $200,000 in parking revenue to help residents “get from point A to point B.”
“I would love for any of my colleagues to think about that and be involved in what another solution might be,” she said. “Because I remain undeterred in my quest to help more people get around St. Pete and beyond.”