What if traffic lights were reconfigured, roundabouts were built, or work trucks were parked in a lot overnight as workers took the train to meet them? Would such measures lighten a traffic load many commuters and residents of back roads describe as a disaster?
On the heels of almost wholesale opposition to the proposed Hampton Bays bypass voiced by community members during a recent public hearing, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman is calling for the creation of a traffic task force charged with finding ways to keep cars moving on the South Fork.
In the immediate future, he’s directed Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki to petition county and state officials to reconfigure traffic lights at key intersections during commute times. If officials with final jurisdiction over Montauk Highway and County Road 39 agree, a one-week pilot program would see traffic lights blink yellow from 5 to 7 a.m.
Complaints about shockingly protracted trips across the South Fork are practically part of the East End’s bumper-to bumper landscape. Before then-County Executive Steve Levy agreed to move ahead with building a second eastbound lane on County Road 39 in 2006, officials lobbying for its construction rebuked him for reneging on a promise made by predecessors, holding press conferences at the highway merge and taking aerial photographs of the packed eastbound lanes on Sunrise Highway during morning rush hour. Even back then, snail’s-pace traffic could occasionally stretch all the way back to East Quogue.
Now that delay is a morning expectation.
Locals in Hampton Bays arguing against the proposed bypass felt it would simply add to the nearly untenable situation along Main Street and on residential thoroughfares that already exists. The bypass, which would disgorge onto Springville Road, is designed, Supervisor Jay Schneiderman has said, to make it easier for residents living south of Main Street to get home at the end of the work day. Others argued it could simply bring still more eastbound traffic to their back roads during the morning rush.
The roads in Hampton Bays are so clogged, one motorist told The Press, it takes her 30 minutes to get from Tiana Bayside to the intersection of Canoe Place Road and Montauk Highway. That ought to be a 13-minute ride. She said the wait to turn onto Montauk Highway at Canoe Place Road can be as long as 30 minutes.
It could get even longer during the yellow light program. According to a release from the supervisor, the light on Montauk Highway is among those targeted for the pilot program. So too are lights on Montauk Highway at St. Andrew’s Road in Tuckahoe, County Road 39 at Tuckahoe Road in Southampton, Montauk Highway in Water Mill, and Flanders Road at both Long Neck Boulevard and Oak Avenue in Flanders.
Justin Squires lives in Flanders and most of his work is east of Southampton. “If you’re not across the canal by 5:30 a.m. you’re going to sit in traffic,” he reported, but made note that the ride home is just as bad. “[County Road] 39 in Southampton is a parking lot from 3 until about [5:30 to 6],” he said.
Still, he’s wary of changing the lights on Flanders Road. That might result in accidents as people on the side roads take risks trying to get out onto the main roads.
Keeping traffic on the main roads is a goal of the supervisor’s “big picture” vision. “We need to get the traffic to stay on the main highways and not impact our residential streets,” he said.
In a letter to members of the Hampton Bays Citizens Advisory Committee dated July 15, the supervisor spoke of ideas the traffic task force might explore. One, he said, was initially suggested by Councilwoman Julie Lofstad. It entails establishing a large parking area in Bridgehampton or further east where commercial vehicles can be stored. Workers could take the train to their trucks in the morning. Mr. Schneiderman is hopeful the Long Island Rail Road commuter shuttle, which was suspended due to the pandemic, will resume this fall.
Loren Bennett took advantage of the train when it was available. Without it, the commute from East Quogue to East Hampton, where he works at the high school, is about an hour when he leaves home at 6:10 a.m. He travels Noyac Road most of the way.
Tabitha Raynor Spizuoco also uses backroads to get from home in Westhampton Beach to work in Montauk. Even using GPS and being willing to take what she describes as “convoluted routes,” it can still take her up to two hours to get home at the end of the day.
John Capone has worked for Southampton Town since 1986 at Town Hall in Southampton Village. For the first 20 years, he said, traffic was never a worry, even when he lived on the western side of Hampton Bays. “It never took me more than 15 minutes to get to work,” he said.
Over time, he saw the lights at the college, at St. Andrews Road and Canoe Place add minutes to his commute, until it began taking 45 minutes to get to work; triple the time it used to. The new lane on County Road 39 brought his ride from home just west of the canal back down to 30 minutes.
He speculated the advent of GPS may have been a contributing factor to traffic in neighborhoods as drivers look to circumvent highway jams. “People were finding ways around it by weaving their way into residential neighborhoods and back roads and unpaved roads, anything to shave a few minutes off the drive,” he said. “GPS, I think, was also adding to the problem because people could now rely on their phone to find them a faster way that they may not have known before.”
He noted that there are open positions town officials are struggling to fill because no one wants to deal with the traffic. In some places, work schedules have been revised so employees can avoid sitting in traffic. “Now all schedules, both work and personal, revolve around the traffic. You know when you can and can’t be somewhere at certain times,” Mr. Capone said.
The Town Board itself has pushed its work sessions back an hour so officials can avoid sitting in morning traffic.
Considering the blinking light program, Mr. Capone remembered earlier uses of that program as well as “cops and cones” that turned the center turning lane into an extra lane in the mornings during the U.S. Open and when the second eastbound lane on County 39 was being considered. Mr. Schneiderman was in the County Legislature back then and pushed for the cops and cones program.
“I do give Jay credit. He’s open to trying anything,” Mr. Capone said. “I’m just not sure what else can be done other than drones to fly people around!”
Regarding the proposed Good Ground Extension bypass, Mr. Schneiderman promised that if the road ever were created, it would be limited to noncommercial traffic. He noted that the idea of a road that cuts through the Hampton Bays Diner property to meet up with Montauk Highway to the north and Springville Road at its southerly end has been part of local land use recommendations for decades.
Nevertheless, community members were almost completely in opposition to the land swap necessary to make the road possible. Dozens of community members submitted letters to the Town Board, while another 20 showed up to the hearing.
“I respectfully ask that this does not get approval as residents who were born here have suffered long enough with bad ideas on how to ‘fix’ traffic problems brought on by the over tourism and over building,” Karen Chiaramonte wrote.
Alice and John Cilio have lived in Hampton Bays since 1997. They wrote that “in the last year the traffic on our local roads has dramatically increased with cars speeding along doing 50 miles an hour on our 30 mile an hour roads.”
Georgi DePasquale spoke of waiting through three or four light signal cycles at Springville Road because “the box is blocked” and how it can take 20 minutes to get to the canal from Canoe Place Road. “I understand Hampton Bays is the bottleneck to the East End, but why do we pay the penalty?” she asked.
Hamlet residents may pay the “penalty” of traffic on their backroads, but all town residents will pay the price, should Good Ground Extension be constructed. In November, voters townwide will get to decide whether to allow the necessary land swap process to move ahead.
In the meantime, town officials promise to announce when community forums for the traffic task force might be held to solicit input and ideas as well as when the flashing yellow light program may take place.
Considering the latter, Mr. Squires said, “I will hope for the best but I’ll also keep leaving my house extra early so I don’t have to sit in traffic.”