The 10.3-mile loop, Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid system, will run from 6 a.m. to midnight, free for the first 6 months.

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The 10.3-mile loop, Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid system, will run from 6 a.m. to midnight, free for the first 6 months.

ST. PETERSBURG — Under a still-dark early morning sky, Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit system rumbled alive Friday, opening to the public 15 years after local transportation leaders first pitched the project as a potential antidote to the city’s growing congestion and parking woes.

Behind the wheel of the $44-million project connecting downtown St. Petersburg with South Pasadena and St. Pete Beach along a 10.3-mile route was 69-year-old Jeffrey Thompson, smiling as he pulled up to the 6th Avenue South stop. Dozens clambered aboard, including three passengers with bicycles. “Welcome everyone,” he said.

Many of those alighting at 6 a.m. said they were lured in by curiosity and the promise of promotional “gold cards” offering discounts to local businesses, handed out to the first 500 riders.

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