By Christine Sampson
In a world where some might say it’s easier to travel 90 miles to New York City than it is to drive 20 miles east from Hampton Bays in the morning, change is on the horizon.
Expanded commuter railroad resources have been proposed, with the goal of improving conditions for some workers on the South Fork who right now are driving on roads that are filled to capacity, or who depend on public transportation services. Bus service improvements are also in the works at the county level.
“The amount of train service is inadequate, the amount of bus service is inadequate, and they’re not integrated together,” New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., said this week. “From my perspective, we’re virtually starting from scratch.”
When County Road 39 was being widened a decade ago, the towns partnered with New York State and the Long Island Rail Road to create the South Fork Commuter Connection. Local trains ran between Speonk and Montauk in the morning and afternoon and shuttle buses ran from train stations to major employment centers such as schools, shopping centers, town facilities and Southampton Hospital.
Officials are now proposing its return sometime in 2018. Mr. Thiele said it would likely be popular initially with white-collar employees, whom he said were the predominant users of the service the first time around. Officials’ long-term request to the LIRR is for the addition of a second track from Sayville to Montauk or sidings at South Fork stations.
“The morning train would definitely be a dramatic game changer,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. “The LIRR does a great job moving commuters into the city, and they bring people from the city out to the Hamptons on the weekend. They just haven’t addressed this new commuting pattern, going from west of the Shinnecock Canal to east of the canal.”
To ease the “trade parade,” Mr. Thiele said he may pitch a system in which contractors who have equipment park their trucks in secure places – such as fenced-in yards at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach or the East Hampton Town Airport in Wainscott – and then their employees take the trains and buses to those parking spots.
According to Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, the county is working on its bus system. A “working group” consisting of bus drivers, bus companies and town representatives has been put together to examine transportation and brainstorm solutions for the South Fork. She said Suffolk County has also hired a consultant to take “a region-wide look” at the issues, with answers expected in 2018. And despite drastic cuts to the Suffolk County Transit Bus system last October, the county was able to buy 40 new hybrid vehicles of various sizes to phase into its transportation system.
“I’m really excited about these hybrid vehicles,” Ms. Fleming said. “Maybe we can come up with some sort of on-call service, like we have for the Suffolk County Accessible Transportation service, which folks with disabilities can call. It’s not a perfect system and it needs improvement, too, but maybe that can serve as some sort of a model.”
Elsewhere on Long Island
It’s possible that the types of transportation gaps that local officials say exist on the South Fork are not as pronounced in other regions on Long Island.
Huntington Town has its own bus system, consisting of four fixed routes with additional busing for senior citizens and the disabled. The cities of Glen Cove and Long Beach, on Nassau County’s north and south shores, respectively, operate their own similar systems.
A $1 billion plan is under way, announced in 2016 by New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the LIRR, to add another track to the railroad’s main line between Floral Park and Hicksville to improve service for more than 123,000 peak-time commuters daily – amounting to 40 percent of its ridership.
Yet last October, Suffolk County Transit Bus axed eight routes, including three that served riders on the South Fork. They were left basically stranded, Ms. Fleming said.
“It’s one of the reasons why I’ve made it a priority in my office,” she said. “The further east you go, the more disproportionately the cuts have an effect. … You have fewer people going longer distances, and you have to try and figure out how to address that within the budget.”
Bus transportation, though, seems to be struggling overall. In January, Nassau County’s bus operator announced it may have to cut 10 routes and reduce service on four others unless the county could help it close a $6.8 million budget gap.
Still, officials say the South Fork isn’t getting anywhere near the same level of service it deserves.
“We pay an enormous amount in the [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] tax that helps operate that system, and we’re entitled to public transportation,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “The train tracks sit there empty while the roads are completely backed up.”
Rise of the Jitney
When public transportation couldn’t keep up with the demand, the private sector took notice.
“The Hampton Jitney exists because the LIRR had no foresight,” Mr. Thiele said. The Jitney “got high quality buses, gave everyone a copy of the New York Times and a bottle of Perrier water, got Lauren Bacall to do the advertising and suddenly it was cool to ride the bus. … People say you’ll never get people out of cars, but the Hampton Jitney did get people out of cars.”
Mr. Thiele said part of the grand transit plan is, in fact, a public-private partnership.
Geoffrey Lynch, president of Hampton Jitney, said in an email that demand for its own services has grown, and public infrastructure “has not kept pace with this growth.”
“The resulting traffic congestion has become debilitating during certain times of the year, and it’s jeopardizing future sustainable growth,” he said. “While there is probably no single solution to our traffic congestion problems, Hampton Jitney does want to be a part of the solution. Whether it’s in the form of shuttle service within the hamlets of the East End or as a partner in a commuter service plan, this region is our home and we recognize the need for investment in local transportation.”
Officials say transportation is tied to other issues, such as the cost of living, affordable housing, and local businesses’ ability to find employees.
“I think you want to reduce traffic, and finding places for people to live closer to where they work is probably the most critical piece,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “Communities need to be able to house a certain percentage of their work force, and here you have people who are priced out. They have to find a way to get to work and we have very limited road systems.”
Ms. Fleming called it “a very big challenge.”
“We have to get it right because it’s so important,” she said. “As a community that cares about the environment and quality of life, and with our focus on economic growth, we’ve just got to figure out how to do a better job of providing public transportation. We should be moving in the direction … of ways of getting around that have less of an impact on the environment. We haven’t done a great job of that.”