Local officials say they expect the South Fork Commuter Connection shuttle trains to begin running along the South Fork again in the fall, but a popular shuttle bus route in Montauk that has operated in recent summers is unlikely to roll again, at least not this summer.
The commuter connection program, which had added two additional LIRR trains running just between Speonk and Amagansett to the morning and evening rush-hours, was halted in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic exploded across the region and the Long Island Rail Road saw its overall ridership fall by nearly 80 percent.
But State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said that he and the South Fork town supervisors, Jay Schneiderman and Peter Van Scoyoc, have been lobbying the LIRR to get the program up and running again as soon as possible.
The LIRR has been hammered financially by the pandemic — losing tens of millions of dollars a week at times with ridership still not back to pre-pandemic levels as many large offices have still not reopened. Many of its commuter routes in even busy western towns have still not seen services restored and the South Fork’s relatively small numbers may not be a top priority, but Mr. Thiele said he is hopeful the trains will be able to return soon after Labor Day.
“We really hope the LIRR will reinstitute that, like right away,” Mr. Van Scoyoc, the East Hampton supervisor, said. “We had a lot of town employees and a lot of businesses that loved having that option for getting their employees to work on time. The commute times are making it very difficult for business to hire and retain staff, and it just seems to be getting worse out this way since the pandemic.”
If and when the shuttle trains do return, Mr. Thiele said this week, there will be a rethinking of the “last mile” services set up by the state to shuttle people from the train stations to downtowns and large employers like schools and town halls. While ridership of the trains had been robust and was growing before the pandemic, use of the shuttle buses provided at each stop was only lightly used.
“We had more demand for the trains than anticipated, but less demand for the last mile,” Mr. Thiele said. “Only about one-third of riders were taking the buses. They were either walking, or getting picked up or bringing bikes, so we’ll have to take another look at that. Maybe smaller buses, or Uber-type transfers.”
The state budget has funded the $500,000 that was allocated for last mile services in the two towns in 2020 and 2021 that has not been used, so there is ample funding if the program returns.
There is not funding, however, for the Hampton Hopper shuttle loop in Montauk that operated from 2016 to 2019 and had found a loyal ridership. The bus service had received a $100,000 grant from the state for the first three years, with East Hampton Town picking the remainder of the approximately $150,000 operating costs for the service. But Mr. Thiele said that the grant funding, which had originally been intended to only be a one-year kickstarter grant, was unlikely to be renewed and Mr. Van Scoyoc said the town was unsure if it could foot the full bill for the service.
“It was used pretty well, I think people liked the service,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “Most other resort areas have free shuttles like that, but a lot of them have a hospitality tax, so maybe that’s how they fund them. For now, we do not have a plan to run it this year.”