The geography of the South Fork and high real estate prices creates lengthy commutes for much of the East End workforce that live farther west, leading to the call for improved public transit in the region. Local town officials answered with what has been dubbed the South Fork Commuter Connection, a rail service from Speonk to Montauk.
The train will be set in motion in March 2019. In the meantime, Southampton Town’s Public Transportation and Traffic Safety Director Tom Neely asked business owners at a September 26 Southampton Chamber of Commerce meeting to take part in several programs and think about creating flex schedules, which adjust work hours to fit those of public transit.
“We’re trying to save time while also being cost-effective,” Neely said. “There are also environmental benefits to this — reduced air and ground pollution. Every car drips fluids and oils, and that ends up on our roads and in our groundwater.”
According to the public transit director, a ride that would normally take an hour, say from Hampton Bays to Southampton Village on a busy day, will take 10 minutes by train. He said these two locations are also the most popular for people looking to hop on and off. Since there is also a state calculated .55/mile reimbursement rate for travel, if you trek more than eight miles, the $4.25 fee each way is price competitive, and will save a rider travelling greater distances. From when initial studies were done in 2007 to now, congestion has only increased, especially further east to areas like Water Mill and Bridgehampton. The town is projecting 500-600 people using the service each day, which would get at least 250-300 cars off the road.
The town has created 30 additional parking spaces in Hampton Bays specifically for train users, on Ponquogue Avenue next to the Verizon Wireless building, on town-owned land. Neely said Southampton will take steps to ensure spaces are taken only by those using the rail service. For people looking to get to village centers, schools and hospitals, a shuttle service will be available. The town is also looking to partner with companies like Uber to help patrons reach their destinations. Since the train schedules don’t perfectly align with the classic work day, he’s hoping local businesses will utilize flex scheduling to give employees time to get from the station to work.
There are many details about the new service that Harbor Hot Tubs assistant manager Tina Mills said she can get behind.
“I’m really excited to see this get some momentum behind it, pun intended,” Mills said. “The traffic is ridiculous and I’m a big environmental-impact person, so to take carbon monoxide off the road is a good thing. But people must bend and be willing to get down with the flex program. For businesses who rely on employees who live outside the community, it could be a really great thing.”
A transit check system where employees pre-pay for tickets through a pre-tax program will also be available. Employers will set it up through their payroll system. There will also be a chance for employers to purchase tickets in bulk at discounted rates to re-sell to employees, and potential monthly or yearly passes at reduced rates.
The shuttle won’t be able to get to all areas of the South Fork, like far along County Road 39, where there’s an assisted living facility with nearly 250 employees, as well as contractors with significant workforces, he said. Some business owners have already pledged to pick up employees, and the transportation director said he’s hoping others will do the same. For those worried about emergencies, there will also be a guaranteed ride home program.
“One of the reasons people don’t take public transportation is if they have a problem, say a child is sick or they need to get home,” Neely said. “It’s reassuring to an employee to know if something happens or they have to work late, we can work out a way to get [them] home.”
Rick Caruso, owner of The Cashew Company, which takes part in Southampton’s farmer’s market and sells bags of cashews in Southampton Town retailers, said he thinks the Long Island Rail Road should be providing more trains east, adding he sees heading along the South Fork as a reverse Manhattan.
“For me, this is in its infancy and it needs to be expanded to have transportation from train stations all along the Island. It’s a whole new world out here and the traffic is out of control. “Maybe we could even provide trains that don’t stop at every stop — maybe just Babylon, Patchogue, Speonk, etc. — because the work is out here obviously. But I think this is a great, great start, and getting the business community involved is a wonderful thing,” said Caruso.