Gina Driscoll

By most any measure, SunRunner is off to a great start as Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit system.

Since it debuted in October, more than 400,000 riders have utilized SunRunner, which runs between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach along First Avenues North and South. Businesses along the route are excited to welcome new customers, and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority just voted in February to extend free fares for an additional six months.

Now it is critical to keep this momentum going and ensure SunRunner continues to be a shining example of how a more robust transit system benefits our entire community in so many ways. That is why I have submitted a budget request to St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch to allocate city funds to SunRunner so it remains free to ride after October. It would be a modest investment that would produce big returns and further strengthen St. Petersburg’s commitment to social equity, environmental responsibility and safe, sustainable mobility options.

Free bus service is a growing trend among transit agencies nationwide. Kansas City became the largest city to stop collecting fares throughout its bus system in 2020. Boston made fares free last year on three major bus routes through predominantly Black communities, and Denver and Albuquerque have experimented with fare-free bus service. In July, Washington, D.C., will become the largest city to permanently offer free bus service throughout its system.

By comparison, ensuring SunRunner remains free to ride would be a minimal contribution toward a tremendous community asset. It would enable PSTA to continue to build the SunRunner brand, increase ridership and further establish the service remains easy to use and accessible to everyone. It also would provide more certainty for developers and small-business owners looking to invest along the SunRunner route, providing opportunities to improve housing affordability and create more jobs.

Tampa Bay has seen the positive results of providing free transit options. Ridership increased on both the Downtown Looper trolley in St. Petersburg and the 2.7-mile TECO Line Streetcar System that connects downtown, the Channel District and Ybor City.

While there is a legitimate concern about lost revenue from offering free fares for SunRunner, remember that ridership would be expected to drop by more than 20% if fares were charged. There also is a cost associated with collecting the fares that would be saved. A smart investment by the city of St. Petersburg could help make up the remaining difference.

More broadly, there would be a significant return on investment that would not be reflected in numbers on a spreadsheet. St. Petersburg is committed to improving social equity on multiple fronts, from housing affordability to job creation. Free bus fare on SunRunner provides an affordable option for employees to get to work, families to get to downtown parks or the beach, and students to reach the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus without paying for gas for their own vehicles or for parking.

The city also is committed to environmental sustainability. SunRunner uses hybrid electric buses, and that means significantly reducing carbon emissions. A successful bus rapid transit system also takes more cars off the road and encourages transit-oriented development.

The city’s budget process will play out in the coming months as the mayor releases his proposed budget for fiscal year 2024, public hearings are held and the City Council approves a budget that takes effect Oct. 1. Just as we invest in libraries, parks and other public services for the greater good, we should invest in SunRunner to keep the fares free and allow this wonderful addition to our community to flourish 

Gina Driscoll represents District 6 on the St. Petersburg City Council and is chairperson of the board of directors of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.