MANATEE -- It's about to get a little easier to travel to St. Petersburg from Manatee County.
Beginning April 1, Manatee County Area Transit will offer a new route, called the Skyway ConneXion, allowing residents to use regular public transit to cross the Sunshine Skyway Bridge for the first time.
"There are a lot of things to do in Manatee and Pinellas counties," said Bill Steele, MCAT manager. "It is probably valuable to have that connection available through transit to spend time in Pinellas or vice versa. We have some of the nicest beaches in both counties every year. It just opens up a lot of opportunities for interconnectivity travel."
The route, which will operate Monday through Friday, will cost $5 for one-way or $10 for round trip. A one-day unlimited pass for all MCAT local routes and the Skyway ConneXion route will cost $10. The $5 ConneXion fare is the same fare veterans currently pay for rides to Bay Pines.
Riders can also purchase a $3 fare for express service within either county, but the fare becomes $5 if they cross the Skyway Bridge.
Beginning at the DeSoto Station, Skyway ConneXion will also pick up passengers at the downtown Bradenton transfer station and the Palmetto station before heading to Pinellas County, where it will make three stops, terminating at the Bay Pines VA Hospital. The hospital is "adjacent to major transfer stops for Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority," according to a news release.
The other Pinellas County stops are near Eckerd College, Grand Central Station and Tyrone Mall.
The route could potentially alleviate some traffic on area roads.
"It probably wouldn't be something you will notice as a commuter," Steele said. "Plus you don't have to hassle to find a parking spot where difficult in certain situations."
While MCAT has already been transporting veterans to Bay Pines VA Hospital, the idea for the new route came in the fall when the county began using a full-size bus to transport veterans rather than a smaller paratransit vehicle, Steele said.
"We really needed the paratransit bus to meet the demand in the local community," Steele said.
On average, MCAT transports 10 veterans a day, but the regular transit coach has seating for about 30 people, Steele said, adding that the new route will operate at no additional cost.
"We have additional space," he said.
The county will begin the new route as a pilot for several months to evaluate demand, Steele said.
"We are going to start small and monitor growth over time," he said. "There is opportunity over time to expand it and add some trips."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.