Political officials from all over the South Fork gathered on Friday at the Hampton Bays Long Island Rail Road station to take a short ride on the train and sing the praises of the South Fork Commuter Connection.
The Commuter Connection, which went into service between Speonk and Montauk a year ago, has been lauded as an alternative to driving on traffic-clogged County Road 39 for East End employees who don’t live in either Southampton or East Hampton.
“It’s been extremely successful as a first step to expanding transportation options,” said State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who added that the results have been so good that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which includes the LIRR in its operations and has long been criticized for ignoring the East End, has promised to undertake track improvements as part of its current capital plan.
Just how successful the service is can be spelled out in ridership numbers provided to Mr. Thiele by the LIRR.
While ticket sales between Speonk and Montauk from March through November in 2017 and 2018 were largely flat — 17,467 tickets were sold in 2017, and 17,241 during that same nine-month period in 2018 — after the new shuttle service began, sales rose sharply. A total of 44,268 tickets were sold just between March and November last year.
The railroad added two eastbound trains in the morning and two westbound trains in the afternoon for the Commuter Connection to give local riders more choices than the LIRR’s normally limited offerings.
With no other service upgrades provided, Mr. Thiele said it was a safe bet to conclude that the lion’s share of that increase in sales was due to the availability of the new local commuter service.
Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the MTA, said on Tuesday that the increase has continued into the new year, with 2,526 tickets sold for trips between Speonk and Montauk in December, and 2,532 in January. Those represent increases of 223 percent and 473 percent, respectively, which he said in an email “shows the effect the SFCC has had on Montauk Branch ridership.”
The railroad did report that 5,195 tickets were sold expressly for the Commuter Connection from March through November last year, but Mr. Thiele said it appeared that most riders had figured out that if they didn’t want to ride the shuttle bus service provided between train stations and major workplaces, like schools, hospitals and business districts, they could save a dollar off the Commuter Connection fare of $4.25.
“We expected that most of the people who took the train would then use the bus,” he said, “but people have been making other arrangements — walking, riding bikes, carpooling.”
When the MTA agreed to provide the commuter service, both towns agreed to provide bus service to cover “the last mile” of the typical commute. But Mr. Thiele has been able to obtain $500,000 in state funding to underwrite that expense — and, late last year, with bus ridership failing to take off, the $1 surcharge to cover that expense was dropped from ticket prices.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said officials were puzzled by the lack of bus ridership, but he said it might be because bus routes are too circuitous, or riders make arrangements with co-workers to pick them up at the train station.
Southampton contracts with the Hampton Jitney and the Hampton Hopper to provide its shuttle bus service, while East Hampton contracts with the Hopper, which has been deploying vans instead of buses in that town.
“We’ll be going back out to bid,” Mr. Schneiderman said of the shuttle bus service. “We might be bidding for smaller vehicles. Last time, we requested capacity of over 15. This time, we’ll probably ask for under 15.”
He said the towns might look to imitate a “micro-transit” pilot program advanced in the Southampton and Sag Harbor area by Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming as a way to fill the gap in transportation options for people who used to rely on the now eliminated 10A bus route.
On Tuesday, Ms. Fleming said the county is seeking a contractor that could provide a smaller, multi-passenger vehicle to follow that old bus route, but one that “could deviate from that route on demand” to help fill the void in public transportation.
Mr. Schneiderman said if the MTA comes through with its offer to improve East End infrastructure, he would like to see parallel tracks, or sidings, added to the existing single track. That would give shuttle trains a place to pull over to allow either through trains or shuttles to pass in the other direction.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said he, too, was pleased with the Commuter Connection. He said for years, the MTA told East End officials it didn’t want to increase service because it didn’t see the demand. The shuttle shows “they didn’t see the demand because they didn’t have the service,” he said.
He agreed with Mr. Schneiderman that adding sidings would allow the service to be expanded throughout the day to serve more than commuters. He suggested a couple from Southampton might be able to catch the train to go to dinner in East Hampton, or vice versa.
Mr. Van Scoyoc said he also expected the service to continue to gain riders. He said he rode the train from Hampton Bays to East Hampton following Friday’s press conference and met a woman from the North Fork who works in Amagansett and had just begun to use the service a week earlier.
“Here’s someone who has known about this for a while and is just taking advantage of it now,” he said. “She told me she had just gotten so fed up with traffic, and this has been a life-changer for her.”