Aug 24, 2023 - News

St. Pete's SunRunner to start charging fares in October

Illustration of a SunRunner bus with a velvet rope outside of the doors.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Peter Titmuss/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) voted Wednesday to charge $2.25 to ride the SunRunner rapid bus service on Oct. 1 — a month earlier than planned.

Why it matters: The move is aimed at curbing the number of unhoused people using what has so far been a free service.

State of play: Officials moved up their initial timeline to switch to fare-based rides after receiving complaints from residents about unhoused people using the SunRunner to visit St. Pete Beach, defecating in public and harassing them.

  • Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at Wednesday's meeting that his office is being inundated with calls for service near the beach.
  • Some attendees called the decision discriminatory.

Zoom in: The new fare will only be payable using "contactless​​" options, like a debit or credit card — unlike the city's other transit routes, which accept cash. The Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas said in a press release that doing so sidelines "those who are already marginalized."

  • The motion will require the PSTA to meet with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to coordinate long-term solutions to help the unhoused.
  • Previous iterations of the plan only applied a fare to the Grand Central bus hub and all beach-bound SunRunner stops, according to the Tampa Bay Times. But the motion approved Wednesday made no such distinction.

Context: The SunRunner debuted in October 2022; the PSTA planned to keep the service free for six months before extending the zero-fare program until Nov. 1. It averages 100,000 riders each month, according to Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority projections.

  • St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch included $200,000 in his proposed budget to keep the SunRunner free beyond November. Welch sent a letter to the PSTA before Wednesday's meeting expressing his disagreement with their plan.

What they're saying: Gualtieri told PSTA officials that introducing a fare will reduce the number of unhoused people coming to the community through the SunRunner. "This is a very real problem. It needs a very real solution."

  • Earlier this month, Chris Marone, St. Pete Beach City Commissioner, also criticized the SunRunner. "We cannot just pick these people up and drive them somewhere," he said, per Creative Loafing. "We can make their lives miserable. … That's all we can do is pester them."

The other side: "Data consistently reveals that low-income individuals are more likely to become homeless due to socioeconomic barriers," Monika Alesnik, CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas, said at the meeting.

  • "In light of this reality, targeting these individuals with fare increases on the SunRunner raises serious concerns about discrimination," she added.
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