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MTA is Off Track

Posted on 05 February 2010

By Karl Grossman

The plan by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to end Long Island Rail Road service from Ronkonkoma to Greenport except for summer weekends — and this just after getting Suffolk County residents to provide it with yet more money — is being roundly viewed, correctly, as an outrage.

“This is the last straw,” says Suffolk County Legislator Edward Romaine of Center Moriches. The MTA, he calculates, is now receiving $520 million a year from people in Suffolk County. “That’s $347 from each man, woman and child.”

In return, the MTA provides little in the way of transportation for eastern Suffolk — and now it would be less.

“It’s taxation without transportation,” says Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell.

“It is proof positive that the MTA is one of the most tone-deaf organizations in existence,” says State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor. “After becoming the beneficiary of more money from us through the payroll tax and increased fees, this is the MTA’s response.  In the private sector, if your business is in trouble you find ways to grow your business. The MTA and the LIRR cut service and close stations. And they wonder why more people are not taking the train.”

Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk calls the plan “unbelievable.” The MTA is “already taking hundreds of millions of dollars from eastern Long Island but at the same time further decreasing public transportation services.”

In addition to the Ronkonkoma-to-Greenport service cut, a peak Brooklyn-to-Montauk train would be eliminated, except for summer, under the MTA plan.

The $520 million Suffolk is paying into the MTA includes: $97 million in sales tax collected here; a $125 million MTA slice from the mortgage tax; and, as of May, $98 million in payroll tax money; $26 million from an increased fee for motor vehicle registration; and the list goes on. In return, the MTA “does not pay a penny in subsidy” to Suffolk Transit, the bus system here, says Mr. Romaine. Inadequate South Fork LIRR service led to creation of what is now a multi-million dollar business: the Hampton Jitney. As for Riverhead and the North Fork, Mr. Romaine last week related meetings with LIRR executives that could have led to more ridership.

At one, involving the commissioner of jurors, an appeal was made to get the train that arrived in Riverhead at 9:15 a.m. in earlier so it could serve to transport jurors who needed to assemble at 9 a.m. ”at the court facility less than a block away.’” Nothing happened. At another, an earlier train was again sought with an offer made of the county sending vans to meet it and bring workers to the County Center and students to Suffolk Community College “up the road.” Again, nothing happened. It was as if, he mused, the LIRR has not wanted more passengers.

And now, the MTA plan is, except for summer weekends, no train to Riverhead.

But, stresses Mr. Romaine, this new “challenge represents an opportunity”—moving ahead with the idea of a Peconic Bay Transportation Authority.

Indeed, the MTA move, says Mr. Thiele, “crystallizes what we’ve been talking about: creation of our own transportation authority. This is the time for the East End to take control over our transportation future with our own transportation authority and get improved public transportation.”

Suddenly, for some reason, there is some openness to the idea from at least one MTA board member and the LIRR president. Mr. Romaine said he has spoken to Mitch Pally, Suffolk’s representative on the MTA board, and he “indicated a willingness to explore an East End separation.” And Mr. Thiele said he has just had an “encouraging” conversation about this with LIRR President Helena Williams.

Mr. Romaine said he would appear before the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association at its meeting February 19 in Riverhead to press for action on a Peconic Bay Transportation Authority. Under the association’s auspices, a study has been conducted which proposed a system of light rail that would use LIRR tracks and tie into a network of busses and vans serving East End communities. It’s time, says Mr. Romaine, to “move on” from studying to the goal of implementation. He estimates $100 million of the $520 million going to the MTA yearly comes from the East End and eastern Brookhaven Town and this could be used as a financial base for a regional transportation authority.

Meanwhile, in the wake of complaints, the MTA has set a public hearing at the County Center in Riverhead on March 8 on its proposed LIRR service cuts. 

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