Fred Thiele

Posted on 24 September 2009

web Fred

The state assemblyman on developing a regional transit system, getting money from the MTA and taking the train to work.

You’ve been leading the discussion of  proposed transit solutions for the East End, which include a combined light rail and bus service on the South Fork, plus a demand-centered van service to pick up travelers at their homes. Sounds like a dream. What challenges have the proposals faced?

Going forward as we decide the next steps, there are a number of challenges.

First is funding which will require a 100 million dollar capital outlay. We expect to have support from all levels of government.

Second is the governance of the service itself. Historically we’ve had resistance from the MTA and LIRR to provide the kind of service we’re talking about. Their mission is for commuters, to get people in and out of the city. We’re not sure if this should go through the MTA.

In essence the South Fork is a cash cow for the MTA since they receive  money from our sales tax, mortgage recording tax, drivers license fees and more. Trying to separate those dollars will be a substantial challenge.

When we first started talking about this we said there would be a new transit authority. But I have no preconceived notions, I’m more results minded.

Actually, in recent months, the LIRR is being more responsive, more involved in discussions than they ever have before. The LIRR is taking a step this week to vote on a study for a new diesel shuttle service for the East End. I would see this at least as an interim to a full implementation of a plan.

What have discussions focused on so far?

Moving from a draft plan to a final plan we’ve focused on the differences between the North Fork and South Fork; there was increased recognition there were subtle differences. The North Fork will be more bus dependent while the South Fork will have a rail component.

What percentage of the population will the system serve, and who is it designed to help?

When we did the original shuttle, we had to work with the existing LIRR schedule and structure. That was focused on moving white collar workers — employees at the hospital, schools, etc. Now it’s designed to get as many people out of their cars as we can; white collar and blue collar. We want to try to get part of the trade parade off the highway. Also, the other shuttle didn’t focus on the summer population.

It’s estimated there will be about three million riders per year.

Are there models where a system like this has worked successfully?

One of the things about the East End and it’s demographics, there’s nothing really quite like it; but there are places similar. Where we looked first was Cape Cod, which separated from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. They basically separated themselves from Boston. They have a substantial seasonal population. They had a railroad, but tore up the tracks and have done it mostly with bus service. They’ve been in business 15 to 20 years and are an extremely successful operation and have a system that people use.

How do we get beyond the discussion and analysis phase?

We have a fully developed concept of where we want to go, which came out of the SEEDS study, to look at our needs. Now we need to design it to the point where it can be implemented and it will be subject to environmental review. Then we’ll design it for engineering purposes so it can go out to bid.

We have put in a request for federal funding, which will require a match, and trying to do this so not put a financial burden on the towns and villages. We’re looking at an 80/20 federal/state match. I would imagine a million from the federal government and $250,000 as a nonfederal match.

The question is now finding the federal legislation that this can be put into.

We are also taking into consideration the efforts the LIRR is now making. If we can get this implemented through the MTA and the LIRR, that would be the best scenario.

What is the timeline moving forward?

Realistically, I hope we can get the design and environmental portion done in the next two to three years. But, with my experience in how government works, that may be somewhat optimistic. We’ve seen local projects take longer than that. My hope is that the 10-year estimate from Volpe is on target.

As a resident and elected official can you see yourself using the system?

Yeah, I really could. I used the shuttle several times when it was up and running. The thing for me personally, the primary thing that keeps you from using the rail system for getting from hamlet to hamlet is the connections.

If I had to go to a meeting in Riverhead, I would gladly take a shuttle rather than driving the hour-and-a-half  it sometimes takes to get back from Riverhead.

For everybody, it’s all a matter of making it convenient. I think the one thing the shuttle proved is if you provide something that’s convenient the people will use it.

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