by Karl Grossman
The East End of Long Island and public transportation—unlike love and marriage—don’t go together. It need not be that way. Indeed, a lesson through the years here: when public transportation is provided, riders will come.
Travel on the East End is auto-based. And there’s been mounting congestion as a result, particularly during the vacation season. This July 4th weekend featured bumper-to-bumper traffic on several area roadways, notably Route 27 between Southampton and Amagansett.
Meanwhile, on the same weekend there was a breakthrough in public transportation here: long-desired Sunday and holiday bus service. Rolling in a “pilot” program was the main East End county bus, the S-92. It winds from Orient Point along the North Fork to Greenport and then Riverhead, south through Flanders to Hampton Bays, then east to Southampton Village, Water Mill, Bridgehampton and north to Sag Harbor. Then it travels south again to East Hampton, hooking up with the 10C that goes between East Hampton and Montauk which also began Sunday and holiday service.
This took seven years of hard politicking by Suffolk County Legislators Jay Schneiderman and Ed Romaine. Mr. Schneiderman represents the Towns of Southampton and East Hampton and Mr. Romaine’s district includes Shelter Island, Riverhead and Southold Towns..
“It’s off to a good start,” says Mr. Schneiderman of the service expansion to seven days a week. The S-92 has the highest Saturday ridership in the county. A $1.50 regular fare, in place for almost 20 years on all Suffolk buses, has been increased to $2 on the two lines to help pay for the new service. Other fares—including 50 cents for senior citizens—remain the same.
“It’s another step forward,” commented State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor, a champion of a broad public transportation initiative—a coordinated shuttle train and bus network—that has been sought for the East End.
Mr. Thiele said funding for the “small diesel engines” that would pull the trains has now been included in the state’s capital budget for 2013. “I’m optimistic,” he says. These shuttle trains would use the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road and the goal, explains Mr. Thiele, is to have them operated by an East End Transportation Authority, similar to the Cape Cod Regional Transportation Authority.
There was a change of emphasis by the Long Island Rail Road when it was taken over in 1966 by what was then called the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority (now Metropolitan Transportation Authority). The LIRR’s main focus became commuter service in and out of Manhattan for what in the post World War II years became a vast bedroom community for the city on western Long Island. LIRR service on the East End has been very limited. East Enders pay over $100 million annually to the MTA—through the sales tax, parts of mortgage recording and telephone taxes and now a major payroll tax—getting very little in return.
Jim Davidson demonstrated in the following decade that when public transportation is offered here, it will attract riders. Mr. Davidson in 1974 created the Hampton Jitney—which has become an amazing East End public transportation success story.
A former advertising art director, Jim started with two vans pulling trailers, ferrying people and their bicycles to and from beaches and other points between Amagansett and Southampton. Hampton Jitney’s service now involves 49 buses transporting folks dependably and in comfort from both the North and South Forks to and from the city. The Hampton Jitney is doing what the LIRR or MTA could have easily organized—and made money doing. In fact, the LIRR fought the Hampton Jitney as it sought a state license for its Manhattan service.
Another example of people using public transportation on the East End when it is offered came in 2007 and 2008 with the widening of County Road 39 in Southampton. The LIRR operated a shuttle train service between Speonk and East Hampton. It was too bad that when the construction ended, the service was stopped.
Nationally, a battle is underway to get Congress to provide adequately for public transportation—which “protects our environment” by cutting carbon emissions, “reduces our dependence on foreign oil….creates jobs” and “enhances our quality of life,” says the American Public Transportation Association on its website www.publictransportation. “While Americans struggle with rising gas prices and a sluggish economy, America needs public transportation more than ever.” That’s especially true of Long Island’s East End.