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SunRunner ridership drops after fare implementation

Mark Parker

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Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, said the Florida Department of Transportation will not use red-dyed asphalt for a 34th Street South lane repurposing project - if it overcomes mounting hurdles. Photo by Mark Parker.

At a meeting in December, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said charging fares for the previously free SunRunner service solved St. Pete Beach’s homelessness “problems.”

While calls for assistance near the region’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) route dropped precipitously, total ridership also significantly decreased. A Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) document dated Dec. 21 shows that the SunRunner carried 91,326 passengers in September 2023; that plummeted to 55,713 in October and 51,981 in November.

Stephanie Weaver, PSTA’s communications manager, provided some context. She told the Catalyst that the agency always expected ridership to drop once the agency began charging passengers for the service.

“However, we’re still seeing more than 50,000 rides each month, making it one of our highest-performing routes,” Weaver said. “We expect ridership to build on the SunRunner over time – even with a fare.”

The premise for implementing fares Oct. 1 – a month earlier than scheduled – was that homeless residents in downtown St. Petersburg took advantage of the free trips and exhibited “unacceptable behaviors.” Several community advocates, local leaders and Mayor Ken Welch opposed the initiative, with Welch offering to subsidize the SunRunner indefinitely.

Several St. Pete Beach residents said the complimentary service brought crime and drugs to their idyllic community. Sheriff’s office statistics seemed to validate those claims.

At a Dec. 6 PSTA board meeting, Gualtieri noted his office received 84 calls to a single beach access point in September. There were just two after implementing the $2.25 one-way fare.

The service also saw nearly 43% fewer total passengers from September through November. “When we first launched the SunRunner, we based its effectiveness or success on much more than just ridership,” Weaver said.

A PSTA document shows a sharp decrease in SunRunner ridership after September 2023.

In addition, SunRunner ridership is less than a third of what PSTA projected in 2017 when it applied for federal funding. The agency, using a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) platform, estimated that service would see 5,468 daily weekday passengers.

The SunRunner’s average daily passenger count in November, including every day of the week, was about 1,733. Weaver explained that the FTA required PSTA to develop projections using its S.T.O.P.S. (Simplified Trips on Project Software) modeling system.

“The 5,468 model estimate from 2017 was not an ‘initial’ forecast – it was meant to be a long-term forecast for weekday ridership,” Weaver said. “This was pre-pandemic, and when the SunRunner was planned to be about 10% longer, with more stations.

“The SunRunner system that was built was shortened to appease the City of St. Pete Beach.”

Weaver provided possible explanations for the decrease in ridership. She said many SunRunner passengers, unlike those relying on other routes, have access to vehicles.

Weaver added that the earlier-than-planned fare implementation did not allow much time to educate riders on using the SunRunner’s contactless, cash-free system. Many homeless advocates made that same point, to no avail.

However, there are several reasons for optimism. Weaver noted that a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) study, presented to PSTA’s board in October 2023, highlighted the SunRunner’s positive impact on the Central Avenue corridor.

The study found that traffic crashes along the 6.7-mile route decreased by about 25% after the service launched. It states that travel speeds improved in “most cases,” and average travel times remained consistent.

Weaver said the SunRunner is also introducing people to public transit, as a PSTA survey found that two out of every five people were new passengers. She also noted that the route is spurring new transit-oriented development (TOD), which, in turn, could increase ridership.

While the service was free, the SunRunner exceeded one million riders within its first year. “The SunRunner was always meant to be a catalyst, being the first BRT in the Tampa Bay region,” Weaver said. “And we hope to continue to build upon the success we’ve seen so far.”

 

 

 

 

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16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Emily Koala

    January 31, 2024at8:37 pm

    55 million spent so far for Sunrunner Project. Alot of money spent so people can have option to take a bus from downtown to St. Pete Beach.

  2. Avatar

    John Barrios

    January 13, 2024at9:56 am

    They did not cut the free ridership sooner than expected as it was only projected to be six months and went on for over a year. Also, they’re going to booster rider ship by cutting other routes that are right along parallel Street such as central Avenue.

  3. Avatar

    Marilyn Parver

    January 12, 2024at9:53 pm

    I love it to go to the beach but I agree that the schedule is so unpredictable that it is hard to use for appointments now. I also miss having the time between stops displayed during the ride.
    I’m glad we have it and I hope it becomes more dependable.

  4. Avatar

    Mark Edmonds

    January 12, 2024at2:17 pm

    An observation here from a Northeasterner who visits St. Petersburg every winter and has done so for the past 17 years. We recently spent last week using the Sunrunner extensively to travel from St Pete’s Beach to downtown St.Petersburg. It’s a tremendous service! I can’t fathom how anyone could quibble with having to pay $2.25 to go that far (we rode from St Pete’s Beach all the way downtown several times and went back the same way) in only about 40 minutes. Sure, the timing was a little off with the kiosks telling us a bus would be along in 20 minutes and lo and behold one showed up in three. Or vice versa. But I attribute that to the ebb and flow of the time it takes to navigate stops, passengers embarking and disembarking and loading bicycles and also traffic. I’ve ridden many other rapid transit systems throughout the country including in major cities such as New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and throughout Italy on trains emanating from Rome throughout the countryside to major cities there. The Sunrunner is on a par with all of those. We are in the offseason right now but I can’t help but thinking that ridership will increase dramatically once the real tourist season begins and once the new residential towers are complete in the downtown area. Please keep the service going and if possible extend it beyond St Pete’s Beach. For those who quibble and gripe about losing a lane on 1st Avenue North and South well maybe try getting out of your car and using the bus for small trips across the city. It’s much more convenient than trying to drive and fight for lanes in traffic.

  5. Avatar

    Tall Blonde

    January 12, 2024at2:11 pm

    Shocker really? The crime rate has also dropped here in St Pete Beach thank God. It was stupid to think that traffic wouldn’t be worsened taking it on Pasadena avenue as well as 1st avenue North and South is completely ridiculous it has jammed up traffic I bet you traffic incidents have increased and I’m sure awesome Chief Holloway would be more than happy to provide those traffic statistics for the record. If anything is giving away for free who wouldn’t take it free ice cream? Free tickets to a bucs game? Free tickets for food? I live on blind pass and I see the decrease in people coming from the bumrunner stop at Boca ciega and 75th going to the food kitchen over at St John’s. Glad the sheriff stepped up and said this is the best thing we can do and it was done before the holidays. And let us not remember that it was President Trump that approved that money for the City of St Petersburg and their Democratic mayor at the time

  6. Avatar

    CG

    January 12, 2024at1:44 pm

    As an outsider, I love the Sunrunner. I can take a bike and quickly get to downtown from the beach.

  7. Avatar

    Stiv B

    January 12, 2024at11:34 am

    @casey You basically wrote some of the exact same points I was going to make.
    The idea that first Ave North or south is just as fast as before is a 100% total lie. I agree that using 5th is the better option now (which means they’re just pushing vehicle traffic elsewhere) I don’t think sunrunner took even ONE car off the road. No one that actually had to keep a schedule can rely on public transport. None of these politicians ever use these public transports themselves. No one that lives along the route wanted/wants it. It’s a monument to inefficiency and poor resource management

  8. Avatar

    Casey

    January 12, 2024at10:08 am

    You have to wonder if the county commissioners even used 1st avenues north and south. To more to the point If they’ve ever used a bus? The congestion they’ve caused for a bus ride that’s mostly empty is useless and costs the taxpayers millions. It’s now faster to use 5 avenue. But wait I’m sure they’ll find a way to ruin that road also. SPB prerogative to not implement and ridiculous plan. Can’t say i blame them. Maybe next time they have a hair brain idea they should ask the public for a vote. Btw people do want terms limits even if they don’t like the idea. Just ask them

  9. Avatar

    Sam

    January 12, 2024at10:08 am

    Obviously you don’t ride the sunrunner yourself or you would know the reason ridership has dropped is because the system is off. You will wait 30-40 minutes for a bus when they are supposed to run every 15 minutes until 8 pm. The arrival times are rarely correct and abruptly jump from a 19 min wait to 30 min. When you rely on the Sunrunner for your mode of transportation it is frustrating that you can’t count on it.

  10. Avatar

    Pedro V.

    January 12, 2024at9:57 am

    Honestly, I am not suprised, this is to be expected. It is true that even with 50,000 monthly riders, the SunRunner has become PSTA’s busiest route (beating former title holder Route 52). I agree that with more stops and more development happening in the corridor, it will only lead to more riders even with the fair (don’t expect them to get rid of it, it is very unlikely and Honestly a waste of taxpayers money, despite that it was a drop in the bucket). New Projects at the Trop site and Tradewinds will help bring more value to using the line. Only if St. Pete Beach change their minds, only then will a stop at Pass-A-Grill become a reality.

  11. Avatar

    Vince Cocks

    January 11, 2024at9:03 pm

    Robert, the original plan was to terminate in Pass-a-Grille then turn around. St Pete Beach residents and elected officials were vehemently opposed.

  12. Avatar

    John Mooney

    January 11, 2024at8:47 pm

    Yes, because now the only people that ride the Sunrunners are those that utilize “rapid transit” for its intended purpose. People with a “destination!” Not people that ride just to ride because they haven’t anywhere to go.
    THANK YOU PINELLAS COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE!! ❤💙

  13. Avatar

    Bh

    January 11, 2024at6:57 pm

    We’re not talking about 1 million different people riding. It’s 1 million rides. Many passengers such as those being discussed in this article, rode hundreds and hundreds of times but they were one person. Let’s not confuse rides with people.

  14. Avatar

    Mike Kosempa

    January 11, 2024at6:52 pm

    The mental gymnastics rationalizing their cash grab at the expense of the residents of St. Petersburg and st Pete beach is poetry in motion.

  15. Avatar

    Maximilian Stober

    January 11, 2024at6:25 pm

    Good get rid of it I want 3 lanes back

  16. Avatar

    Robert Rothlein

    January 11, 2024at9:51 am

    It would be nice if the Sunrunner went to Pass – A – Grill beach.

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