After years of research and study, this week New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. presented the East End towns with a final study on the feasibility and improvement of a public transit system on the North and South forks of Long Island.
On Wednesday, September 23 the study was unveiled during a forum at Suffolk Community College in Riverhead. Conducted by the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, a Massachusetts-based transportation research firm, the study was prepared on behalf of the Towns of East Hampton, Riverhead, Shelter Island, Southampton and Southold and funded by a New York Department of State Shared Municipal Services Incentive Grant for the “Creation of a Coordinated Rail and Bus Network on Eastern Long Island.”
Looking at existing transportation on the East End and whether a combination of a light rail and bus system is feasible or cost effective, the Volpe Center presented its initial recommendations – to overhaul the East End railway system and create a shuttle train service with bus support to transport passengers into village centers.
While there was support for the proposal at the April forum, it was suggested that one unified transit system would not be appropriate for both the North and South Forks as the communities differ in population density, travel patterns and local priorities. While towns on the South Fork generally preferred a coordinated rail-bus network, similar to an expanded version of the South Fork Commuter Connection used to alleviate traffic concerns two years ago during the renovation of County Road 39 in Southampton, towns on the North Fork expressed a preference for the Flexible Transit Network. That plan is largely focused on increasing bus services.
In response, the Volpe Center’s new proposal is called a “Dual Concept” approach.
On the South Fork, the study recommends replacing the existing Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and Suffolk County Transit bus service with a coordinated rail-bus network with small shuttle trains used on a line from Montauk to Speonk with four now-defunct stations – Quogue, Southampton College, Watermill and Wainscott – re-opened.
According to the study, the trains would run every 30 minutes during peak periods of the day and every 60 minutes at other times, with 12 bus routes on coordinated timetables to bring passengers into community centers and areas not connected to the existing rail line. Additionally, the Center recommends seven smaller “demand-response” vehicles, which could serve a range of services including door-to-door service by reservation to defined pick-up routes.
Service on the South Fork would run 18-hours a day in-season and 14-hours a day off-season.
The North Fork’s existing transit routes and services would largely remain the same, according to the study, although there “would be significant improvements to the frequency of service and expanded hours of operation, including Sunday/holiday service on all routes.” Bus service would be expanded to run as often as every 15 minutes during peak periods and as late as 12:30 a.m. during the summer. In addition to routes traversing the whole of the North Fork, from Greenport west, one new route would be added connecting Greenport to Riverhead and to the Tanger Outlet Center. An express bus service would also run roughly every two hours from Riverhead, or further east, to the Ronkonkoma train station and Islip-MacArthur airport.
Minimal improvements to the North Fork rail system are also outlined in the study as are links between the North and South Fork systems.
The Volpe Center report states this kind of transit system is feasible on the East End provided a significant investment is made in upgrading and adding to the current transit system. Upfront capital costs are estimated between $117 million and $148 million with an estimated $44 million per year needed to run the system as proposed.
While the study does discuss the creation of a new East End transit authority, on Tuesday Thiele said his preference would be to get the LIRR and the MTA on board to provide this service for both forks.
“That would be the easiest and the fastest way to get this done,” he said. “We certainly have paid our fair share towards transportation.”
The alternative is the creation of a transit authority similar to one created on Cape Cod, which separated itself from a larger Boston-based transit authority in order to create transportation services better tailored for its needs.
“There was really a lot of initial research into what was done in Cape Cod because we have a lot of similarities as far as demographics, population trends and even geography,” said Thiele.
The next step, said Thiele, is determining whether the LIRR and the Suffolk County Transit authority are interested in helping the East End implement this final plan.
“I think certainly the LIRR interest in providing improved service to the region has grown,” said Thiele. “Five years ago, I couldn’t get them to return a telephone call on this, but the new president, Helena Williams was very cooperative during the County Road 39 re-constriction and has been following the Volpe Study.”
Also crucial to the creation of the transit system is federal funding.
“I think both federal and state funding is critical for this to move forward,” said Thiele. “If you look at everything, in New York, whenever they buy a new subway car it is heavily subsidized.”
Noting mass transit systems never support themselves fully, Thiele said there are a number of funding options for the plan.
“This was never envisioned as something the towns and villages would subsidize,” said Thiele. “They may provide support in terms of parking and the existing bus services through human services departments, but we are not looking to put the burden on the towns.”