Today, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) board voted 12-2 to begin charging fares on the SunRunner bus rapid transit system starting Oct. 1, one month before fares were scheduled to begin anyway.
The PSTA board’s decision comes weeks after a St. Pete Beach Commission meeting where Commissioner Chris Marone blamed SunRunner’s free fares for what he called a rise in homeless folks and crime. Marone added that Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told him deputies couldn’t pick up and drive the homeless elsewhere and drop them off, but they could “make their lives miserable.”
“That’s all we can do is pester them. They used to not be here, these troublemakers. They’re here now,” Marone added at that meeting.
Today, in front of the PSTA board, Gualtieri claimed that people are naked, urinating and defecating at the beach. “Word got out, instead of sleeping in St. Pete, in Williams Park, they could take the SunRunner to St. Pete Beach, sleep on the sand, under the stars,” Gualtieri added.
But crime in St. Pete Beach, he said, isn’t up across the board.
“St. Pete Beach overall is a safe place,” Gualtieri said at the meeting. “This is social crime, crime related to this chronic homeless population.”
The Florida Department of Health estimates that there were just under 2,000 homeless people in Pinellas County last year. In a press release, PCSO claimed that in 2023, there were 2,144 homeless individuals in Pinellas. “Of those, 204 (12%) were chronically homeless,” the release added.
And Gualtieri said the only crime that’s increased is theft, with 48 thefts in 2022 compared to 101 in 2023. He detailed more statistics, and re-sent them to reporters this afternoon. Gualtieri claims that:
- Calls for service increased by 535% at the Dolphin Village Shopping Center across the street from the SunRunner stop on Gulf Boulevard from 20 calls for service in 2022 to 127 calls for service in 2023.
- Calls for service increased by 384% at the St. Pete Beach Public Access from 31 calls for service in 2022 to 150 calls for service in 2023.
- In 2023, 19 of the 101 thefts were retail thefts, with 15 of the thefts being from either Publix or 7-11 on Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach
Gualtieri told the board that in July, he stationed deputies near the SunRunner stop at 4700 Gulf Blvd.—at a cost of $10,000 per week. That special detail, according to the press release, issued 32 ordinance violations, made 52 arrests, did 90 field interview reports, and issued 132 trespass warnings.
The SunRunner has been free to ride since its launch last October. PSTA said the service is nearly at 1 million rides. But starting Oct. 1, fares will cost between $1.10-$2.25, depending on whether or not a rider can prove they are eligible for a reduced fare. What’s more is that only contactless options, like debit, credit and Flamingo Fare cards—will be accepted.
In an Aug. 11 email obtained by Creative Loafing through public records requests, PSTA CEO Brad Miller initially proposed implementing a 50-cent fare he hoped would help in “reducing the number of homeless individuals who are using it to access the beach.”
But Miller was counseled to seek board approval first.
In front of the board today, Andy Oliver, Pastor at St. Pete’s Allendale Methodist, noted that the reduced fare might’ve gone unnoticed without Commissioner Marone’s comments about the homeless.
“You kind of have a legal problem now. [Marone] said the quiet part out loud,” Oliver said at the meeting. “I’ve talked to lawyers and they are chomping at the bit to sue over this rate hike.”
Oliver mentioned Catrone v. City of St. Petersburg, a 2011 case in which the city lost to four homeless folks suing over unconstitutional city ordinances aimed at trespassing people from Williams Park where the downtown bus hub used to be located.
In her presentation today, Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas CEO, Dr. Monika Alesnik, stated that “public transportation should never be used to marginalize any group.”
She called the decision to raise fares at this time an “apparent aim at the homeless population,” and also added that “there are no signs on our beaches that I remember seeing that state you must own a home or be a renter to use our beach.”
The over three-hour meeting was standing room only, with an additional 279 in attendance online.
Many comments were from St. Pete Beach homeowners and business owners calling for increased fares immediately. St. Pete Beach is one of the only local governments that doesn’t contribute directly to PSTA’s operating budget, though it does contract with PSTA.
Originally, the SunRunner was supposed to go all the way to the Don Cesar, but St. Pete Beach opposed that version of the route.
In her motion, which passed, PSTA Board Member Rene Flowers also asked that all concerned entities related to the issue get together to discuss long-term solutions.
Gualtieri said he would gather data from Oct. 1-Nov. 1, and report back to the PSTA board on whether implementing fares solves the problem. St. Petersburg city councilmember and PSTA chair Gina Driscoll voted against the rate hike, along with board member Vince Cocks.
St. Petersburg’s FY2024 funding includes money to subsidize free fares on the SunRunner next year. If the city passes that proposed funding, the PSTA board would still have to approve it.
Mayor Ken Welch—who expressed concerns about the Miller’s proposed 50-cent fare hike, “Both in terms of its potential effectiveness and equity”—wasn’t in attendance at the meeting, nor were any representatives from St. Pete’s leadership team.
Welch has not yet responded to a request for comment, but City Councilman Richie Floyd, who has been a huge SunRunner proponent, told CL over the phone, “I don’t know what to say, I’m frustrated.”