The SunRunner’s Maiden Voyage: One Family’s Ride into History

The SunRunner’s Maiden Voyage: One Family’s Ride into History

The Kile family waiting on the SunRunner bus

The kids were less than pleased to be woken up at 5:30 am. But I wanted to get a seat on the very first SunRunner. I wanted to be a footnote in the history of St. Pete, like the first passenger to arrive on the Orange Belt Railway in 1888. He was a shoe salesman from Savannah, who left town the next day after finding no prospective customers. We are a family of four with just one car, eager to explore alternative means of transportation in an increasingly popular and crowded city.

We boarded the bus at the third stop, at the intersection of 5th Street and 1st Avenue North. The kids’ grumpiness disappeared when they saw all the tv cameras, reporters, and photographers. Anna had her picture taken by the Tampa Bay Times. James sat in between the cameraman and the ABC News reporter during a live feed for the morning broadcast. Better still, they both were handed the coveted “Gold Card” when boarding, a discount card packed with deals at businesses along the SunRunner route. They weren’t the only passengers this morning to remark that it was “like winning one of Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets!”

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The ride was reminiscent of a crowded subway trip in New York City. Boarding the first bus at the third stop meant that it was standing room only. Every seat was full and passengers held on to straps suspended from the ceiling. The crowd was a mix of curious retirees and workers on their way to jobs. A construction worker helping to build a medical building near the mall, a resort worker at the Tradewinds. My seatmate was an older gentleman who hasn’t owned a car since 1974. He was thrilled that the SunRunner didn’t have to pull into the PSTA hub at Grand Central, saving time and hassle for everyone aboard.

You could tell you were on the maiden trip of a new bus in a new system. The driver was exceedingly careful as he pulled up to the curb, taking longer than normal to come to a stop. Those extra few seconds added up, and we were running behind by the middle of the journey. Then we hit some sort of debris and the driver stopped to check that the bus wasn’t damaged. No one seemed to mind though. There was palpable excitement about being on the first SunRunner. It felt like a new era.

SunRunner launches historic new era in St. Pete

Images from the SunRunner's first day
A family on the beach

To save time, the driver skipped a stop or two near the end of the route. One worker seemed perturbed that he’d missed his stop, but he joined us as we exited at the Beach Access at St. Pete Beach. He hurried off to work and we headed out to put our feet in the sand, just to say we did. The sun was just beginning to lighten the sky. It had taken us about 50 minutes to get all the way to the beach.

After a traditional breakfast at IHOP (where the tourists go!) we jumped back on the SunRunner for our ride home. We were greeted by an ebullient Brad Miller, CEO of PSTA, who handed us another Gold Card, which we declined…had to teach the kids not to be greedy! A few stops later Miller helped a 20-something man wheel his bike into the modern contraption that stands the bike on end for the length of the ride (roll the front tire into the little yellow “elevator” and watch it lift the bike on end!)

The ride back was peopled by a diverse array of passengers: a businessman in his early 30s, who whipped out his laptop to take advantage of the free wifi; a young mother with a baby and a toddler, who gratefully took the seat offered to her by an older gentleman; the owner of a new art gallery on Central, who rode for just one stop; two gleeful retired men who were making a daytrip of riding the entire route.

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The driver (same guy who took us out to the beach) had clearly gotten the hang of things by the ride back. It felt like we were flying down the dedicated lane on 1st Avenue South, and we were back at 5th Street in a brisk 35 minutes, as originally promised. The kids were drowsy, but content with their 15 minutes of TV news fame. And I’m satisfied that as one of the first passengers on the SunRunner, I will take my place in history alongside the 1888 shoe salesman on the Orange Belt railroad.

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