By boat or by bus, more ways to get around Tampa Bay

With fanfare and revelry, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority debuted SunRunner, the Tampa Bay region’s first bus rapid transit system, on October 20th.

Police cordoned off a city block in downtown St. Petersburg for a launch event. Representatives from the Federal Transit Administration, the Florida Department of Transportation and local officials gave remarks and posed for pictures. A drumline from the St. Pete High marching band entertained the crowd. The Rays and Rowdies mascots stopped by the festivities.

After about 15 years of talks, plans and false starts like 2014’s failed Greenlight Pinellas transit tax referendum, the day was a long time coming, as PSTA CEO Brad Miller noted with a little levity during his remarks.

“For decades, the SunRunner has been in the works,” Miller says. “For decades, we have been completing study after study, had lots of dialogue, lots of speeches. So I am incredibly happy, as I know each of you are, to announce that my speech right now is the last speech about rapid transit in Tampa Bay that you’ll ever have to hear without a project finally becoming real. The SunRunner is real today.”The SunRunner bus rapid transit system connects downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach

As the rubber literally hits the road for a bus rapid transit system connecting downtown St. Pete and St. Pete Beach by way of dedicated lanes on First Avenues North and South, the stage may finally be set to develop viable transportation options in a region where the automobile dominates the landscape and congestion often clogs the roads.

A day before the SunRunner ceremony, officials on both sides of the bay turned out for public events launching the sixth season of the Cross-Bay Ferry connecting downtown Tampa and downtown St. Pete through passenger terminals at the Tampa Convention Center and North Straub Park. Factor in Tampa’s TECO Line Streetcar, which surpassed one million riders last fiscal year, and it is now possible to travel back and forth between Ybor City and St. Petersburg Beach without getting in a car.

Hopeful officials see a foundation to build on.

“Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay region have for decades been woefully underserved when it comes to transit options,” St. Petersburg City Council Vice Chair Brandi Gabbard says at the Straub Park ferry stop. “We’ve been a very auto-centric community for very long and that is changing. It’s changing because of our demographic. It’s changing because of the attraction. And we have so many people moving to the area, we have to be more creative in the ways we move people around. That isn’t just for tourists, that’s for residents as well.”

Ferry service: a potential game-changer 

Following record ridership in excess of 62,000 last year, the Cross-Bay adds a month to its season this year and expands the daily schedule to run longer into the night. Right now, the ferry is popular with day trippers. Folks head from St. Pete to Tampa for a Lightning game or to hang out around downtown, Water Street, the Channel District or Ybor. They’ll go from Tampa to St. Pete to eat at a restaurant, stroll the Pier or visit a museum. Local officials see much more potential - if the funding is there.

“There is a long-term vision,” Gabbard says. “We have more boats; we have more passengers; we have more frequency and we have a commuter service. It’s going to take some time. It’s going to take a lot of collaboration and partnership but we have shown that is possible and we can continue to move that forward. I think the sky’s the limit when it comes to waterborne transportation in a water-surrounded community.”

With the Cross-Bay, Tampa residents can now enjoy “a nice boat ride, with cell phone service, WiFi and refreshments” to get to St. Pete, instead of fighting traffic on the bridges, St. Pete Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Steinocher says.

“Maybe they even see a dolphin or two,” Steinocher adds.

That convenience and the relaxing experience open up a whole world of possibilities for businesses in both downtown Tampa and St. Pete, he says.

“I think it’s one of those literal game changers if our businesses pay attention to it, if we really market it right,” Steinocher says. “It just gives every one of us a bigger market to reach every day. There are so many connections we can create for people, so many experiences we can create for people in this region. This is one of those moments where, if we pay attention to it, we can expand the exposure of all of our businesses in St. Pete. Hillsborough and Tampa should be thinking the same way. I really believe it is one of those regional assets that can solidify a culture of us working together. I think it is really important for us to continue to build together. It brings that realization that together there is so much more our community can do, that they can access. If we do this, everybody then sees all the assets of this region and we’re unbeatable. There’s no other market in the country that connects all the dots that we can do.”

Tampa Downtown Partnership Director of Transportation and Planning Karen Kress says "it feels like the potential is almost limitless" for what ferry service could be in the region.

"I think Ed Turanchik (transportation advocate and attorney for Cross-Bay Ferry operator HMS Ferries) is the one who kept referring to it as congestion-proof," Kress says. "And that addresses a big problem for commuters now. It’s hard to have a lot of predictability on how long your commute is going to take. And that's not just work commutes. Anytime you’re driving a car in Tampa, it’s pretty hard to predict how long it’s going to take, whereas, if you have waterborne transportation, it’s much easier.”

Kress says to tap the full potential of the ferry, there need to be more last-mile transportation options to get arriving passengers from St. Pete around downtown. To that end, she says the Tampa Downtown Partnership is working with other local agencies on micro-transit solutions like an effort to launch a replacement for the Downtowner, an on-demand, point-to-point ride service that ceased because of funding issues in April 2021.

Future plans

Looking ahead, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority has a $4.9 million grant to purchase a 350-passenger vessel for the Cross-Bay. Once that boat is in the water, the local government partners behind the ferry - Hillsborough County, Tampa and St. Petersburg - have a goal to make the service year-round. Right now, the current October to May service uses a boat owned by the ferry operator, HMS Ferries. Hillsborough County officials also want to expand a commuter ferry to south county and Apollo Beach. 

As the Cross-Bay Ferry launches its sixth season, officials on both sides of the bay see potential to develop a long-term transportation option.To Steinocher, a convenient, established commuter ferry service to south Hillsborough could be key for the continued strength of St. Pete’s economy. Right now, many workers in St. Pete face hard times finding affordable housing as the city attracts a wave of higher-end new development.

“I really believe that in our region, as pricing structures and popularity increasingly become part of living and doing business here, if we don’t connect with these types of transportation modes, we’re going to cut ourselves off and we’re not going to continue to be an enviable place,” he says.

There is also a long-term vision to expand ferry service in Pinellas County, Forward Pinellas and the PSTA  envision a countywide service developed in phases. Their first goal is restoring the Clearwater Ferry service with the assistance of public funding and expanding it to a seven-day-a-week schedule. Further down the road, their idea is a ferry system that extends down the Intracoastal, stopping at the beaches before wrapping around the southern part of Pinellas’ mainland to Pinellas Point and, finally, downtown St. Pete to link to the Cross-Bay.

More accessible, more affordable. More sustainable

Speaking at the SunRunner launch, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch says that, with its dedicated lanes and frequent service to cut travel times and its hybrid electric fleet to reduce emissions, the modern efficient transit system makes the city “more accessible, more affordable and more sustainable.” 

“SunRunner will enhance St. Petersburg and the Central Avenue corridor and connect our downtown with the wonderful beach communities, enabling visitors to be able to move around our entire community,” he says.

While officials look to expand the ridership of the ferry service beyond day trippers and tourists to draw commuters, the majority of current PSTA riders use it to get to work, says St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership CEO Jason Mathis says during the October 20 event. He says his organization estimates there are 50,000 jobs and 40,000 residents within half a mile of the SunRunner route. 

With the city’s continued growth, Mathis believes new housing along the SunRunner corridor, coupled with zoning changes that allow more people to live in the area, can be part of the solution to the challenges of attainable and affordable housing. In some cases, the proximity to the SunRunner line could help workers living in the area avoid the expense of a car payment, he says. Beyond that, riding the bus will be a way to avoid the growing city’s growing traffic and parking challenges. For drivers who never step foot on a SunRunner bus, there will be one less car to deal with on the road for each passenger on the bus, Mathis says

“As much as we may want to freeze St. Pete in time and stop all new growth, that’s not a possibility,” he says. “But we can manage the growth and make sure we are growing in a thoughtful way. SunRunner is part of that smart growth solution.”

The eye-catching SunRunner buses, painted aqua with a bright yellow smiling sun wearing sunglasses, run west on North First Avenue and east along South First. They stop every 15 minutes at sheltered passenger stops on a raised platform. For the first six months, passengers ride for free.

“My hope is that SunRunner will connect to a new generation and show them that you don’t have to have a car to live in this beautiful city,” Pinellas County Commissioner and PSTA Board Chair Pat Gerard says during the October 20 ceremony. “We are the biggest metropolitan area in the country that doesn’t have a transit system, so we’re working on it. This is the beginning. I hope the SunRunner shows them that we need to support public transit and the investment in public transportation. You can’t keep building more roads.”

During its first weekend on the road, SunRunner carried more than 10,000 passengers, the PSTA announced on Monday, October 24th. 

For more information go to SunRunner and Cross-Bay Ferry.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.