- "We forgot the wine," said Raymond Thorne as he stood with fellow commuters at the corner of Hampton Road and Main Street in Southampton on Thursday afternoon, awaiting the bus to take them to the 5:05 train to Speonk.
Continuation of the shuttle service in the future is dependent on cooperation
from the towns, which provided bus service from the train stations to the downtown.
And so with little fanfare, a group of commuters, some of whom rode the shuttle faithfully for its entire nine-month run, boarded the last special Long Island Railroad (LIRR) commuter train west, bringing to close an experiment in mass transit on the East End. Instituted in October to help alleviate traffic congestion during the expansion of County Road 39, the South Fork Commuter Connection ferried as many as 8,399 riders on the train service in November of 2007. Ridership fell significantly after the extra westbound lane was opened in May, with 3,240 people using the shuttle in that month, according to numbers provided by the LIRR.
The fate of the shuttle, which cost approximately $100,000 per month, remains unclear. Assemblyman Fred Thiele
, a strong proponent of mass transit and the commuter shuttle, said he planned to set up meetings with town and railroad officials in the next few weeks to discuss the future of the service, and, according to Thiele, money isn't the problem.
"Funding is not an issue," he explained. "Funding can be secured. The question is can we convince the railroad to do it, given the fact that once the highway reopened, the ridership fell substantially."
When it was launched in the fall, the shuttle was marketed as a way to beat the traffic; should it return, Thiele said he believes it could be marketed as "an alternative to high gas prices, which I think are going to be with us for the foreseeable future."
The fate of the shuttle remains unclear. Assemblyman Fred Thiele said he would hold meetings in the next several weeks to discuss options.
A spokesman for the railroad expressed reservations about whether the service would continue. When it started, "it showed that East Enders are willing to consider the Long Island Railroad as a way to get to work," said Joe Calderone of the LIRR. "Unfortunately, once the road was improved and re-opened, many people went back to their cars."
"At the moment,we're not planning service in the fall," Calderone continued, adding, "We would certainly be open to something in the future."
Raymond Thorne, Lori Klos, and Annette Cassidy, left to right, waited for the last run
of the South Fork Commuter Connection shuttle on Thursday. "I'm sad," Klos said.
"I like the choice, I like the people."
Tom Neely, director of Public Transportation and Traffic Safety for the Town of Southampton, said the town would have to have a "very clear" idea of where the funding was coming from before committing to the project again. "Certainly, the town is conceptually a big supporter, and did support it with a great deal of town funds and services this year," he noted.
The town is a project manager on a feasibility study of mass transit on the East End being conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. Set to be completed at the end of this year, the section pertaining to the current state of the public transportation system on the East End has just been finished, according to Neely.
The next stage of the study will examine how rail and bus service can be used as a long-term solution to traffic congestion. It will be presented to the Southampton Town Board and put out for public comment as part of its final determination. Thiele said the shuttle provided a "real life laboratory" for the Volpe study to analyze how mass transportation is used on the East End.
The study will be a step towards developing a comprehensive public transportation system for the East End, with a more integrated, better-scheduled system of buses and trains, Thiele explained. "There is no doubt in my mind that even if the shuttle doesn't return in the fall, it is only matter of time before that kind of service is a permanent part of transportation on the East End," Thiele said.