I’m not often surprised by politicians. Well, let me rephrase that, I’m often surprised by politicians’ venality, but much less often by their willingness to take a risk. So, I have to admit that I was taken completely by surprise when, at the Transportation Forum sponsored by New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, there was near unanimity among the politicians present that the East End Transportation Council should continue developing plans to build the expensive and unproven East End Shuttle rail/bus network. This consensus came after listening to a very detailed analysis of the pros and cons of this plan, and those of an alternative plan for a flexible bus network developed by the Volpe Transportation Center, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, that seemed to favor the bus network.
Present at this event were quite a few of the East End’s local and regional elected officials including the supervisors of the Towns of Southampton, East Hampton, Southold and Riverhead, County Legislators Schneiderman and Romaine, Assemblyman Thiele, every member of the Southampton Town Council, members of various other town councils, and representatives from the offices of Congressman Bishop and State Senator Lavalle. The only significant player not present was the Shelter Island supervisor. Among those commenting on the transportation plans presented at the forum, only the representatives for Congresman Bishop and Senator Lavalle did not take a position, saying they would have to defer to their bosses; County Legislator Romaine left early, before his opinion could be recorded. Riverhead’s Supervisor Cardinale arrived late, and having missed the presentation said that while he could not take a strong position either way, he would, at this time, defer to the opinions of the other supervisors. Only Legislator Schneiderman voiced a dissenting opinion. Everyone else present expressed support for the development of the rail/bus network plan.
Quite frankly, I was dumbfounded. After listening to the presentation, I was sure that the local officials would use the cover provided by the Volpe Center’s more reasonably priced alternative to avoid supporting what looks to be a very difficult to implement and costly project, the outcome of which is far from certain. But, calling the more elaborate plan “visionary,” and “of greater long-term benefit,” the politicians quickly came to consensus. How often does that happen? I’m still shocked. It certainly tore a hole in my post of a couple of weeks ago in which I asserted that the provincialism that crops up in inter-town disputes was one of the biggest problems facing the East End. Needless to say, I was thrilled at this level of cooperation. I also support the plan.
At this point some of you are probably wishing for a little background. OK, here it is. Planners have been predicting total gridlock on East End roads since at least the 1970s, and starting around then have also proposed many ways to avoid it, most of which have proven unacceptable to residents and or government officials for one reason or another. In the mid 1990s, the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association (EESMA), created a new group, the East End Transportation Council (EETC) to again study the issue, which they did…interminably. Their work eventually culminated in the 2006 release of a study known as SEEDS (Sustainable East End Development Strategies). I won’t go into that here, except to say that development of a mass transit system of some kind was one of the recommendations of the study. During the SEEDS process, a splinter group formed among the SEEDS stakeholders. The members of this splinter felt that EETC was moving too slowly, and that it was time to jump from studying the problem to developing solutions. This group became Five Towns Rural Transit (FTRT), a non-profit devoted to the development of what was to become known as the East End Shuttle.
Through the dedication and hard work of FTRT, a plan was developed that included replacement of the Long Island Rail Road service on the East End with a more frequent light rail service that would shuttle between the stations and be met by a network of feeder buses to which passengers could transfer for short rides into nearby hamlets, villages and business centers. In 2007, Assemblyman Thiele and Senator Lavalle took up the cause of FTRT and were able to obtain a matching grant for the study and further development of the East End Shuttle concept. The East End Towns came up with the matching funds, and the EETC was given the task of finding a group capable of undertaking the study. This turned out to be the Volpe Center, which was charged with fleshing out and analyzing the feasibility of the Shuttle plan, and also with coming up with at least one alternative, so that if the plan proved unacceptable, the Towns would have a fallback strategy.
The result of this work was presented on Friday, April 17th at Suffolk Community College in Riverhead. I won’t try to recap the presentation here, as I’ve probably already worn out your patience with this long-winded post. However, in summary, I think it would be fair to say that while Volpe was favorably impressed with FTRT’s shuttle plan, they concluded that it could be prohibitively expensive, and that the results — whether or not people would use it, and whether or not it would relieve congestion on our roadways — were uncertain. The alternative they proposed, was, in their words, more flexible, less expensive, and implementable in phases — all advantages over the shuttle plan. The big disadvantage of the alternative was that the buses would run on the same clogged roadways that we all use now, resulting in long travel times, while contributing to congestion on the roads.
After the presentation, many panelists and audience members spoke eloquently in favor of the shuttle plan, in spite of its possible drawbacks. Legislator Schneiderman spoke thoughtfully and presented some additional drawbacks to the shuttle plan that had not been mentioned by Volpe. Supervisor Russell of Southold, suggested that a hybrid solution, with different approaches for the north and south forks might be the best alternative — more rail on the south fork, more buses on the north. Ultimately, the idea of a hybrid solution — details unspecified — took hold of the group, and when it came time to arrive at a consensus, a hybrid solution embodying most of the details of FTRT’s East End Shuttle, at least on the south fork, was agreed upon.
I’ve skipped over a lot of important details in this post — financing for one — which I hope to get back to another time. For now, though, I think it is enough to say that occassionally, the people we elect do their jobs with thoughtfulness and diligence, putting the greater need ahead of short term political considerations, and we should all be grateful for that, and that the *!~@$*** congestion on our roads may eventually be remedied.