The rapid bus line introduced fares ahead of schedule on Sunday, a month earlier than initially planned by the transit agency due to issues related to homeless riders.
After carrying more than a million passengers during its first 11 months on the downtown St. Petersburg-to-St. Pete Beach route, the SunRunner is no longer offering free rides.
Effective immediately, the rapid bus service now shares the same fare structure as other lines operated by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority: $2.25 per ride, or $1.10 per ride for riders aged 9-18 or 65 and older, passengers with disabilities, and adult students with valid student IDs. Daily fares will be capped at $5 per rider, or $2.25 for those eligible for reduced rates.
Unlike other lines, however, the SunRunner does not accept cash payments. Passengers are required to use a debit or credit card, a smartphone’s digital wallet, or a card or app from Flamingo Fares, the transit payment system used throughout Tampa Bay. Riders eligible for discounts will only receive them if they utilize a Flamingo Fares account.
The Transit Authority had always intended to charge SunRunner passengers after an initial free period designed to attract new riders. Initially, there was speculation that free rides might continue into the following year. In February, the agency’s board of directors voted to extend the free period until November, and St. Petersburg’s city council was considering budgetary provisions for 2024 that would have covered riders’ fees beyond that point.
However, in August, the transit board changed course under pressure from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, as well as St. Pete Beach residents and officials. They argued that homeless riders, some of whom used the bus for shelter during extreme weather or for panhandling near a nearby shopping area, were negatively impacting their quality of life and tourism.
Sheriff Gualtieri deployed additional deputies near St. Pete Beach SunRunner stops to address minor offenses such as trespassing, public urination, and nudity, incurring a weekly cost of $10,000. He believed that imposing fares was the only viable solution to resolve the conflict, emphasizing that arrests were not the answer. It remains too early to determine the effectiveness of the fares, but Gualtieri has withdrawn the extra deputies while the agency collects data.
“We’ll assess the situation over the next 30 days and evaluate the outcome,” he stated.
During a recent board meeting, two members, citizen appointee Vince Cocks and St. Petersburg City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders, expressed concerns about the expedited fare implementation and its potential impact on riders. They highlighted that paper fare cards for one-way rides, available for purchase at convenience stores and distributed by some nonprofits and social service organizations, would not be accessible until November.
This gap could pose challenges for riders without access to credit or debit cards or a compatible app, noted Cocks. Additionally, board members recently discovered that the Transit Authority would allocate approximately $55,000 to a private security firm for the first 13 weeks of fare enforcement on the SunRunner.
“I just feel like PSTA is ill prepared, and they were pushed into it becauseof Sheriff Gualtieri’s concerns,” Cocks said in an interview Monday.
Stephanie Weaver, the spokesperson for the transit authority, mentioned that their staff has been actively involved in familiarizing passengers with the payment process for the SunRunner. They have been riding the SunRunner and visiting terminals to provide guidance on how to pay for the rapid bus service. Additionally, they are distributing $5 Flamingo Fares day passes, which can be reloaded at terminals, in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the paper card delays. Weaver noted that the majority of riders were already aware of the impending fees but required assistance and information regarding how to pay for their rides.
“It can be an adjustment for people,” she said, “but we’re doing the best we can to educate everybody.”