With an operational train station and ferries running to and from Manhattan, Sag Harbor was once a beacon of public transportation. The heyday of the village’s transport system was at the turn of the last century. Fast forward 100 years and the tracks have been ripped up, the ferries have been replaced by the Long Island Expressway and the village’s public transportation system has been reduced to two Suffolk County buses.
Municipal officials from Southold to Southampton, however, are hoping to reverse this trend. Based upon two proposals presented by the Volpe Center at a transportation forum held at Suffolk County Community College’s Riverhead campus on Friday, April 17, local government officials clamored for a hybrid plan to establish a coordinated rail and bus system throughout the East End.
The consensus of the group favored the first of Volpe’s proposals, with the caveat of adding certain elements from the second proposal, which called for a more intricate bus plan and a gradual phase-in of rail improvements. Proposal one calls for an overhaul of the East End railway system, which would be coordinated with a modest bus service. Sean Pierce of Volpe said trains would run seven days a week, every hour during off-peak times and every half hour during peak times. The service would operate 14 to 18 hours a day, depending on the season, and while the possible cost of train fare wasn’t offered, bus fares, which are currently $2, would be raised to $2.50 a ride.
Seven additional sidings — tracks that allow two trains to pass — would need to be built and 17 new trains purchased. Certain defunct depot stations, like those at Southampton College, Water Mill and Wainscott, would be reopened under the plan and updated to become handicap accessible.
The town and village bus system would be designed to operate around the train service. On demand bus shuttles would act as “feeders” to the train stations and serve residents living within a three mile radius of the station. Fixed bus routes, serving communities outside of the three-mile zone, would be maintained. Altogether, 52 buses would be purchased and a dispatch center created to process on-demand reservations.
“We already have the [railway] infrastructure,” said Southampton Town Councilwoman Nancy Graboski.
Others asked the plan be tweaked based on geographical needs. Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell requested increased bus services on the North Fork because the rail road tracks end in Greenport and don’t provide service as far as Orient Point.
“We shouldn’t lose focus of the long term goals for the railroad … We need to take very progressive steps,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot.
“If we build it they will come … We have the potential to create the opportunity for increased ridership,” added East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill McGintee.
The first proposal, however, comes with a hefty price tag. Initial capital costs for the railway range from around $106 to $175 million and the annual operating costs are estimated at $19 million. The bus portion of the plan is projected at $25.6 million, with yearly operating expenses of almost $22.1 million.
The exact source of funding for the project also remains a pressing question, especially for Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who was the lone dissenting voice against both plans.
“There is a lot of good work here, but we need to scale things back and focus on a program that costs the least amount of money,” said Schneiderman. “The numbers scare me, especially in this economic climate … Even if we get the money how will we subsidize [the annual costs]?”
New York State Assemblymen Fred Thiele Jr., however, remains confident that the project is eligible for federal funding. Thiele, along with Southampton Town Director of Public Transportation Tom Neely and the town’s grant writer will draft and send a formal request to Congressman Tim Bishop seeking federal grant money for the next phase of the project.
“We are putting in a request … to make it a shovel ready project … [or] right up to the point of bidding,” said Thiele. To make the plan “shovel ready,” all the proposal details from the planning, design and engineering to environmental impact study would have to be completed.
Will Jenkins, a spokesperson for Bishop, said the congressman would request $250,000 from the transportation, housing and development appropriations bill to complete the next step of the process. If the bill passes, federal funding for the planning and design portion of the proposal could be granted by the fall.
Some locals, like Jake Jacobson, say they need additional services as soon as possible to ease their commutes. Jacobson rides the bus from Flanders to Sag Harbor several times a week for work, but said morning buses are often crowded.
“Sometimes I don’t even get a seat on the bus,” said Jacobson. “The 7:10 a.m. bus [from Flanders] passes me by because there are too many people on it. So then I have to wait for the next one, but there might be only one seat.”