by Art Levy
Six years ago, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority applied for a federal grant to help it create a rapid-transit bus route connecting downtown St. Petersburg with St. Pete Beach about 10 miles away. After winning the grant in 2020 — and nearly two years of infrastructure construction — the authority’s $43.9-million SunRunner bus line is expected to open later this year to begin transporting an expected 4,000 passengers each day.
The line will co-exist with the Central Avenue Trolley, which transports up to 2,500 passengers a day along essentially the same route. The trolley, however, will be scaled down slightly. The advantage to the SunRunner, says Abhishek Dayal, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s (PSTA) director of project management, is its buses will avoid some of the traffic that typically makes other buses late.
“The buses will be running on semi-dedicated bus lanes, and that just gives them the edge over the traffic. A lot of our buses today, they get stuck in traffic, so there’s no predictability in terms of when you'll get to your destination,” says Dayal.
The trip from downtown to the beaches, for example, takes about 55 minutes on the trolley. The SunRunner is predicted to make the trip in 35 minutes.
To achieve a more predictable arrival, one lane of traffic along the route will be reserved for buses, although motorists will still be able to use the bus lane when turning. Also, the buses will be equipped with technology enabling them to communicate with traffic signals along the route, ensuring they rarely encounter a red light.
Another aim of the project, which also received funding from PSTA and the city of St. Petersburg, is to encourage riders who might ordinarily make a trip by car to consider taking the bus. Dayal says a major part of that pitch will be the route’s predictability, but another part is making the experience more inviting with public art at the line’s 16 new stops and onboard amenities.
“The buses will have bike racks actually inside the bus, as opposed to outside, so we'll have a very cool unique feature where people can bring their bikes inside,” Dayal says. “Each seat will have a USB port. We will not have any fare collection boxes that we have on our other buses. Everything will be paid using our Flamingo Fare, which is an app, or a card that you can buy from our transit centers or many retail outlets. All you'll have to do is to tap this card or scan your phone. For people who have a car or have more than one car to be able to use this service, that’s definitely a change in mindset that we are hoping that this service will promote.”