Inside Tampa Bay’s First Bus Rapid Transit Service • St Pete Catalyst

The long-awaited SunRunner is set to debut in St. Petersburg, connecting the city and the beaches with semi-dedicated lanes and attention to minor detail.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority will hold a groundbreaking ceremony Oct. 20 for the $44 million bus rapid transit (BRT) service — the first in the region. The SunRunner will make its maiden voyage carrying the public on Friday, October 21 and will offer free rides for the first six months. Ahead of the festivities, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) gave the media a preview of its teal sliding doors for fast travel.

The BRT bus stops low to the curb at its 30 stations along a 10.3-mile route that connects St. Petersburg, South Pasadena and St. Pete Beach. Avoiding stairs allows for easier access, especially for people with disabilities. Along with shorter journey times and fewer stops, Sonia Jones, a PSTA bus operator, said level boarding presented the biggest variation from her old routine. “You just pulled up to them,” she said.

Operators like Sonia Jones trained for eight months.

AJ Ortiz, lead safety and security instructor, said training on the new vehicles began in late January and lasted eight months. Operators could not prepare for the transition on local roads, so PSTA officials built a facility to practice in a controlled environment.

Raised platforms, Ortiz said, pose a hazard to buses as drivers enter stations with little margin for error.

“The hardest thing I had to practice was almost like teaching a bad habit,” Ortiz explained. “We stay away from the curbs. The sidewalks are bad – that’s where the people are. Now we have a raised platform and… you have to touch the pavement.

He added that there are tools to protect buses, but if operators stop at an angle, “things could easily go wrong”.

Ortiz called the training complex, and the instructors divided the course into four modules. The SunRunner has television screens that provide weather and news and will eventually offer marketing and promotions. He said officials adopted the feature after several operators suggested it during those sessions.

The PSTA employs about 400 drivers, and Ortiz said the BRT needs 14 to 20 dedicated operators for its nine SunRunners to provide coverage.

St. Pete Beach, Ortiz noted, is consistently ranked among the best in the country, and he said there aren’t enough parking spaces to match its popularity. Officials designed the SunRunner for people to bring coolers, beach chairs and bikes, which lock inside the bus using an easy-to-use mechanism.

Officials designed the buses to accommodate coolers, beach chairs, bicycles and wet, sandy passengers.

While Ortiz said the BRT “definitely created more work for us,” the ultimate goal is customer satisfaction.

“We want to make sure the customer has what they need,” he said. “And can reduce travel times… and have less congested roads. It’s a win-win. »

The BRT will transport people to the beaches every 15 minutes from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and every 30 minutes from 8 p.m. to midnight. After the first six months, the cost is the same as a typical bus ride: $2.25. Officials expect loud and possibly inebriated passengers, but Jones said she doesn’t care about that.

If she’s nice to people, Jones explained, they usually reciprocate. “If they’re not out of control, it’s fine.”

“They’re here having a great time,” she said. “They don’t go far.”

Ortiz noted that these people were doing the right thing by using the service rather than having a “road soda” and driving.

SunRunner designers used a textured rubber floor with channels to mitigate moisture and slippage. Oritz also noted that they tried to make it easier to clean up a preponderance of sand.

Each of the SunRunner’s seats is equipped with USB charging ports, another of the “little things” he said PSTA took into consideration. The bus is quiet and accelerates quickly.

Ortiz reported that several residents of luxury apartments in St. Petersburg have already complained of fumes. So, PSTA has implemented geo-fencing technology that prevents buses from running the diesel engine in the downtown corridor.

Once the bus leaves the designated area, Ortiz said the engine restarts to charge the electric motor.

“Residents of Pinellas County, no matter who you are or where you live, they have a voice,” he said. “We are listening, and here is the end result.”

While some people complained that the red-painted SunRunner lanes caused confusion and increased congestion, Ortiz said the benefits outweighed the costs. During the protest, a vehicle stopped at a traffic light in the BRT lane, temporarily interfering with its path.

He believes the complaints stem from people’s reluctance to change, which the region needs to accommodate growth.

“Will this lead to a future BRT running north-south?” He asked. “I’d like to hope so.”

Rides are free for the first six months and the first 500 passengers will receive golden cards offering discounts and promotions.

Beginning October 21 at 6 a.m., the PSTA will offer the first 500 passengers a SunRunner Gold Card. It offers discounts to more than 30 companies along the route.

For more information, visit the website here.

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