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MTA Hopes to Implement Some of SEEDS Study Before 2015

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By Claire Wall


Do you remember when you could see a flicker of light at the end of the Long Island Rail Road tunnel?

Well, according to those integrally linked to the future of transportation here on the East End, it may be faint, but it’s still there.

It’s been 10 years since local transportation experts banned together under the leadership of the New York Mass Transit Council (NYMTC) to create SEEDS: Sustainable East End Development Strategies. And while not much has been said of the plan since it came to a conclusion in 2005, those at the helm of the effort believe change is afoot.

“I’m optimistic,” said New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Jr. of the possibility of increasing rail service between Patchogue and Montauk. He noted that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has already allotted $80 million in its capital plan for 2010 – 2015 for small diesel trains, called “scoot trains,” that would be added to rail lines to increase the frequency of train service in the east.

What’s more, as Southampton Town Director of Transportation Tom Neely pointed out, the MTA has also reserved $50 million in its five-year capital plan to create an electronic signal system on the South Fork. One of the biggest issues responsible for the infrequency of train travel between Patchogue and Montauk, Neely explained, is that train operators on this leg of the LIRR track are in “dark territory”: they’re not in communication with one another, so two trains headed for each other on the same track would have no way of knowing they’re aiming for collision.

“It’s the same way they did it 150 years ago,” he exclaimed.

While funding is only really targeted for this service at this point and is not a total guarantee, Thiele continued by saying, for him, seeing this support from the MTA “is a step in the right direction.”

It also helps, Thiele continued, that the newly elected Suffolk County Legislator Steve Bellone “has endorsed all of this,” having made transportation his number one East End issue on the campaign trail.

“We’ve had the most support we’ve ever had on this,” he added.

Comprising nearly five years of research, the SEEDS study lays out comprehensive plans for both sustainable growth in terms of population and infrastructure, and increasing the frequency and efficiency of public transportation on the East End. In the end, the two go hand-in-hand. In building up village and hamlet centers to be high-density and therefore low-impact, this would create opportunities on the East End for implementing transit centers.

Neely pointed to the new development plan at the Bulova building in Sag Harbor as a good example of sustainable growth. Because it aims to create high density residences in a downtown area, “it’s a very good example of a development that can make good use of public transportation,” he said.

Recognizing the problems with scant train service on the East End and the subsequent absence of a coordinated bus system, the SEEDS study ultimately resulted in two plans aimed at increasing train travel to and from the East End, Neely said.

The system would ideally function with inter-modal transportation hubs. After restoring train service to Calverton and Grabeski Airport, Neely said there would be at least five major inter-modal hubs (linking train and bus services) throughout the East End: East Hampton and Southampton Villages, Hampton Bays and downtown Riverhead. The SEEDS study also discussed the need for a water taxi between the North and South Forks, which would necessitate an inter-modal transportation hub in Greenport, as well.

“To move forward we would need strong political report,” said Neely, who played a significant role in overseeing the SEEDS process. The transportation projects alone are estimated to cost more than $1 million to fully implement.

While he did say Congressman Tim Bishop had once requested $1 million in earmarked funds to continue this project, the poor economic climate has impacted the state’s ability to move forward in support of this.

“Earmarks are pretty much dead in the water at this point in Congress, “Neely said.

And while Assemblyman Thiele has also drafted two bills, one to create a Peconic Bay Regional Transportation Council and the other to create a Peconic Bay Regional Transportation Authority, he said legislators have thus far failed to act on either measure.

Ideally, Neely said the five towns of the East End — Southampton, East Hampton, Shelter Island, Riverhead and Southold — should work together to create a Transportation Development District, as NYMTC recommended. However, at this moment, nothing seems to be moving forward on that front.

While he continues to hope the MTA will pull through and put its money where its mouth is, in the meantime Neely said efforts to rebuild and construct the towns of the East End in environmentally sustainable ways will have to be done on a local level. Southampton Town, for example, has adopted a Complete Streets policy that will encourage new developments to consider adding bike lanes and sidewalks, for example, when repaving town roads.

In the end, Neely hopes legislators will continue to work to get state funding to act on the SEEDS plan.

“Anything would be better than what we have right now,” he continued. “Which is nothing.”

School Faces Loss of Revenue While Costs Rise

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Len Bernard, business manager of Sag Harbor School District gives presentation on 2009-2010 budget

In light of the current economic climate, the Sag Harbor school district has decided to begin delivering the expected budget for 2009-2010 to the community in chunks, prior to board of education meetings over the next few months.
There will be five or six budget meetings in total. The first of these meetings was on Monday when the school’s business manager, Len Bernard, presented a proposed budget for certain departments of $9.7 million — up from $9.4 million for the 2008-2009 school year.
Departments included under this portion of the budget are the board of education, district clerk, district meetings, chief school administrators, auditing, treasurer, purchasing, legal, personnel, public information, transportation, recreation, employee benefits, and insurance and debt service.
According to Bernard, the district is expected to lose 11.6 percent in state aid next year, the highest amount among East End schools. In response, the district has been looking at ways to reduce costs.
One cost saving plan the district is considering is the purchase of a school bus and a van for the transportation department, which would lower the total of this portion of the budget from $9.7 million to $9.6 million.
Currently, the school district contracts for bus service and in his report, Bernard outlined the benefits of purchasing the two vehicles, indicating that a savings of $684,133 could be realized over the next six years.
“You are talking about quite a bit of savings,” Bernard said on Monday, “It’s kind of a no-brainer.”
Bernard presented two different analyses, one for the bus and one for the van. The bus, he said, can be used for school trips, while the van could be used for sports activities and transportation of BOCES students, which Bernard said is expensive through contracted bus service, even for one-way trips. The van could also be used for district students who travel to the Ross School or Stella Maris. Bernard explained the district is expecting teaching assistants and custodians to become the drivers.
“We could pay them to do the extra work,” Bernard said.
In his analysis, Bernard included $10,000 for the cost of the drivers, which he added could increase if the district has to find outside drivers.
School board member Ed Haye asked if those numbers reflected vehicle insurance and maintenance that the school would have to pay on both the van and the bus. Bernard said that he talked to the district’s current bus company and found that it would fall under the umbrella of insurance they already have.
Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said the useful life of a bus is 10 years, “But in all likelihood, it would last longer.”
Bernard also said that he talked to the bus vendor and said the company was willing to give the school a bus for lease for a trial run.
The van could transport up to 30 kids and would be wheelchair accessible, according to Gratto.
“We have a lot of flexibility here,” said Gratto.
A few weeks ago, the school district held focus groups for different community groups, parents, students and faculty asking for suggestions on how to cut costs in light of the reduction in state aid. Some of the ideas generated from the forum were also mentioned in Monday’s presentation. Of those suggestions, the bus and van were the most frequently mentioned idea, according to Bernard.
In the chief administrator’s office both the superintendent and the superintendent’s secretary and the administrators in the business department will all receive five percent raises in next year’s budget. Bernard also said that there was a reduction of one full time staff member in the business department that will not be filled for next year. The two departments combined are projected to cost just over $530,000 for 2009-2010.
Another idea that came from the focus groups was to explore health insurance and dental coverage options, which Bernard said is being considered; but some of that depends on the on-going contract negotiations with teachers, custodians and secretarial unions. Bernard said during his presentation that the school does have another health insurance provider that could give better rates.
Of the departments that were presented on Monday, health and dental insurance had the biggest portion of the proposed budget. It is projected to cost the district $2.7 million for 2009-2010, up from $2.6 million for 2008-2009. Bernard said that this number was determined from an estimate of a five percent raise for the teachers, custodians and secretarial contracts that are still being negotiated.
Of the departments talked about on Monday, debt service represented the second highest dollar amount for next year’s budget.
“We sold a note the first week of September,” Bernard said and then talked about the economic climate crisis that hit the following month. “Then everything hit the fan, now rates are down again.”
He said the interest rates keep coming down and “it will change on a day to day basis.” Next year, Bernard said, will be the last payment of the 1997 bond — which was used to make improvements to the high school.
When asked if there is any consideration for changes to the other existing bonds for new interest rates, Bernard responded, “No, but we are always looking for windows of