Claire Watts and Jeff Neubauer have high hopes for the South Fork Commuter Connection.
Ms. Watts, a paralegal who has worked at Southampton Town Hall for 16 years, was a frequent rider on a previous Long Island Rail Road commuter service that was put in place about a decade ago while County Road 39 was being widened.
“I loved it. I thought it was great,” Ms. Watts, who lives in Rocky Point, recalled. “I went from Speonk to Southampton, and I was taking a class at the time, so I did my homework on the train. There was no problem to park, and the trains were on time and comfortable.”
She’s looking forward to trying them again when the South Fork Commuter Connection, a system of extra morning and afternoon LIRR trains and local shuttle buses serving East Hampton and Southampton towns, officially launches on March 4.
Ms. Watts’s wintertime commute by car takes about an hour, but in summer traffic it’s longer — two hours each way, depending on the day. The morning train from Speonk to Southampton will take 29 minutes.
“Oh my goodness. It’s gotten progressively worse,” she said. “I think more people are coming out this way than they used to. One day, I think I was almost in tears. It becomes very frustrating.”
Mr. Neubauer, a special education teacher at the Bridgehampton School, said he’s excited about having the commuter train option. His 16-mile drive to work from East Quogue can take at least an hour in the spring and summer; the train from Hampton Bays to Bridgehampton will take 18 minutes. He said he also likes the pre-tax paycheck deduction, or “flex” account he can set up with his employer, to pay his fare, which will be $4.25 each way.
“Especially with traffic all year around, it is a great option for all the teachers,” Mr. Neubauer said. “I also liked the idea of the flex accounts to help reduce the price of a round trip. All in all, I think it is a great way to help reduce the stress of getting out east. … It is also reliable and I don’t have to deal with the stop and go traffic. Maybe I can even get some work done as well.”
There is one caveat in Ms. Watt’s plan to try the new system: the shuttle bus times from the Southampton train station into the village don’t line up exactly with her work schedule. Tom Neely, Southampton Town’s director of public transportation and traffic safety, has publicly said there may still be adjustments made to the shuttle bus schedules.
“We’re going to see what we can do to tweak it a little bit, or maybe tweak my hours a little bit,” Ms. Watts said.
Ms. Watts and Mr. Neubauer are precisely the people who elected officials and railroad administrators are hoping will use the new commuter train system. Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said it has been complicated to get off the ground, but this is “really such an important issue for the entire East End community.”
“We’ve been watching the traffic for years increasingly grow on the main roads — Sunrise Highway and County Road 39 — and we’ve been looking for ways to get our workforce to work in a reasonable amount of time,” Mr. Schneiderman said at a press conference to announce the service that was held on Friday at the Hampton Bays train station. “There’s only two roads to get across the Shinnecock Canal … and you see the traffic backed up every morning. It’s pretty much a daily occurrence. And you see the railroad bridges empty. We’ve known for a long time that that was a great potential — to see a commuter train coming out.”
New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. held up a book called “A Blueprint for the Future,” commissioned by Governor Mario Cuomo in 1994, in which a task force of South Fork leaders outlined the need for a more robust public transit system.
“This has been a dream on the South Fork, of East End officials, for more than two decades,” said Mr. Thiele, who worked with the MTA and LIRR to see two extra South Fork trains added eastbound weekday mornings and westbound weekday afternoons. “We’ve seen study after study … we knew that we had to have a good public transit system on the East End — buses, trains, as an alternative to the backup on County Road 39.”
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming said as the South Fork Commuter Connection gets off the ground, she will continue to focus on another piece of the transit system — county-funded buses that will also support the East End’s workforce and residents alike. She said the Commuter Connection “is what’s going to bolster it and move it forward.”
“There’s no doubt that in order to have a real transportation system, the future of transportation is integrated modalities and that integration can come with the trains and this South Fork Commuter Connection,” Ms. Fleming said. “It’s going to add to a system that we’ve had a very hard time getting up and running at the public bus level.”
As the many elected officials who gathered for Friday’s kickoff event credited Mr. Thiele as the leader of the effort, he thanked New York State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle for his help in Albany and called the whole initiative “a partnership, a team effort, to get this done.”
Phil Eng, president of the LIRR, said the commuter service “demonstrates the Long Island Rail Road’s commitment to working collaboratively with community leaders and elected officials “ to provide forward-thinking solutions to residents and employees.
“I think it’s a great achievement,” he said. “…The railroad, we know, is critical to supporting economic growth on Long Island and we remain committed to the quality-of-life issues in the communities we serve.”
A website dedicated to the South Fork Commuter Connection has been established, and can be found at sfcclirr.com.