Recent statistics for the South Fork Commuter Connection — train service provided by the Long Island Rail Road to commuters in the Hamptons — show ridership has exceeded expectations since March, but ridership on the connecting shuttle buses has dropped when compared to a pilot program conducted 10 years ago when the bus was free.
Based on the low shuttle bus ridership, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele is proposing that a mandatory $1 surcharge to pay for the shuttle service, which shuttles commuters to or from train stations and major employment centers, be dropped. Doing so would reduce the cost of a one-way train and shuttle bus ticket from $4.25 to $3.25.
Mr. Thiele has long been an advocate at the state level for getting a regular commuter train in place on the South Fork — a mission that took him more than 20 years to accomplish.
The service offers additional trains — two eastbound and two westbound — during the morning and afternoon rush, to help people avoid the never-popular “trade parade” along the limited east-west traffic routes.
In addition to the four trains, shuttle bus service to help people get from the train station to their place of work is provided by the Hampton Hopper and Hampton Jitney. The shuttle service is being paid for with state grants.
Mr. Thiele found that ridership on the shuttles was low. In fact, it was much lower than it was when the bus was offered for free during a pilot program of the Commuter Connection 10 years ago, when County Road 39 was being widened.
“I am proposing to the towns that the $1 surcharge for the bus be eliminated to further incentivize ridership,” Mr. Thiele said in a press release on September 3. “The loss of revenue to the towns is inconsequential. Instead, one fare for all train riders of $3.25 will further increase overall ridership, including the use of the buses.”
Mr. Thiele and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle worked with the LIRR to obtain state funding for the “last-mile” shuttles. The total amount of money raised from the $1 fare is between $3,000 and $4,000, according to Mr. Thiele, which is split between East Hampton and Southampton towns.
The state, he added, provided $1 million to the program to pay for the shuttle buses — $500,000 in 2018 and $500,000 in 2019 — and Mr. Thiele said he anticipates the state will continue to reimburse each town 100 percent for the cost of the shuttles if the $1 fee is dropped.
When the Commuter Connection was conceived, Mr. Thiele said, the plan was to have the LIRR provide and pay for the trains, which happened. The cost of the buses, he said, was supposed to be split between the state and the towns, and the $1 fee was to help offset the cost of the buses for the towns.
But Mr. Thiele was able to get more grant money for the program than was originally anticipated. “I was successful in getting the state to fund the full cost of the buses, so that the towns were not required to fund anything,” he said. “They only have to front the money for the buses, for which they are reimbursed fully by the state.”
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman acknowledged that Mr. Thiele has been very successful in securing money from the state for the shuttle buses. He also noted that very little money has been raised by the $1 fare for the additional service.
“I agree we should make it a free service and see if ridership increases,” he said. “I don’t know the future of state funding for the shuttle bus service. I certainly hope it would continue.”