Friday was an exciting day for St. Petersburg and the region with the opening of PSTA’s SunRunner Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). My wife and I decided to take our family on the SunRunnner’s maiden voyage, a 6 a.m. journey from downtown St. Pete to the beach. Monica already gets out of bed at 4:45 everyday to run 8-12 miles, so when we got the kids up at 5:30, she was “sleeping in” and the rest of us were disoriented. Normally, we bike 10 minutes downtown, but in the pre-dawn darkness we hopped in the car and parked for free near City Hall. (Fun fact: St. Pete has 25,000 off-street parking spaces downtown, more than 3,000 in city-owned garages, and lots that cost about $1 for four hours, so quit circling for a street space, folks.)
I was a little surprised when we arrived at the platform at 5th Street and 1st Avenue North to find a half dozen other folks waiting to ride. When was the last time people lined up in gleeful anticipation of riding a public bus? Being at the third stop (it begins at USF St. Pete), the bus was already packed with other revelers. Mixing with the standing-room-only, “I gotta be first” crowd were riders who “just gotta get to work” (including a few beach hotel employees), a construction worker, and a guy from Texas in town for a conference who wanted to visit the beach.
Oh, it’s easy to complain about losing a lane on 1st Avenues North and South, the big raised platforms, and the presumed cost. Go to social media and you’ll see all the crying from the transit-phobic about taxes and traffic. I’m here to bury those complaints – not the complainers – in the cemetery next to its 58th Street stop. The new SunRunner is worth the hype, and more.
Let’s get some facts out of the way, starting with the traffic lanes. Instead of three lanes for cars on our beloved 1st Avenues, we have two. But traffic isn’t worse – arguably, it’s better because now the bus lane is also a dedicated turn lane, reducing the need to slow down for turning cars. And the cost: Federal and state funds funded the bulk of the SunRunner. That money was going to be awarded for mass transit somewhere; maybe some people would rather visit their transit dollars in Raleigh or Jacksonville. SunRunner’s raised platforms might be new to us, but we didn’t invent them. They are designed to act like train platforms, so people boarding the bus are on the same level with the bus. No steps for wheelchairs, strollers, bicycles, or scooters to navigate means the boarding process is quicker and easier. The bus whisks riders out to the beach, or downtown in about 35 minutes, end to end. This means if you live around 49th Street in St. Pete, you’re 15 minutes to both. Suddenly life’s pretty rosy in the middle.
The SunRunner is not just another bus. For visitors and residents, the stretch along Central Ave, through South Pasadena to St. Pete Beach and everything for 10 miles in between, is now quickly accessible, whether or not you own a car. There’s an apartment boom along the Central Avenue corridor (another popular whipping horse of Nextdoor crybabies) and those residents can live car-free and access just about any amenity they need. Every neighborhood from Kenwood to Beachway Park has a revolutionary new transit option. It passes three Publix supermarkets and a Walmart. Tourism at the beach and downtown is booming. Now visitors can easily enjoy both ends of the city. With thousands of people using SunRunner daily, this is also great news for drivers (and parkers) who don’t use it.
During the pandemic, we downsized to one car. The SunRunner means I can take my daughter to her dance classes at the YMCA while my wife uses the car. It’s economic common sense to want a city where every adult doesn’t come with a one-ton chunk of metal. It’s a no-brainer for the beach, where they want visitors, but can’t offer them parking. (Yeah, the beach communities fought the SunRunner, simultaneously arguing that it would bring overcrowding and no one would use it.) And people are always telling me they don’t go downtown anymore because of parking. Experts know mass transit is a cure for lack of parking.
As the sun came up, we arrived at St. Pete Beach, checked out the beach, walked a couple blocks, and enjoyed breakfast. The buses run every 15 minutes (30 minutes after 8 p.m.), and we waited five minutes to catch our return trip. We found seats, each of which has a USB phone charging outlet (did I mention the free wifi?), and 33 minutes later we were back downtown.
Public transit serves everyone, even if it isn’t used by everyone. People laughed at Tampa for years for their streetcar system. They recently surpassed a million riders in a year for the first time, and it was only September. Now, a round trip from St. Pete Beach to Ybor City can be made for the cost of a $24 ferry ticket. We have a history of underfunding our public transit and then complaining about it. The SunRunner shows what you get when you invest in something good, and I predict other stretches of this region are going to want their own BRT. Give it a ride and see why it’s a major step for our region.