To the delight of teachers and other school district employees, the South Fork Commuter Connection may continue into June.
The rail and bus service, which is designed to alleviate traffic worsened by the County Road 39 expansion project, is scheduled to end May 23, the Friday before Memorial Day, but New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. is pushing for the Commuter Connection to continue to the end of the school year.
He also hopes it will return in the fall.
The new lane of traffic on County Road 39 is expected to be completed sometime in April, but the response to the train service has Mr. Thiele and other officials wanting to keep it going.
Not only would the extended service benefit school employees, but it is also necessary to evaluate ridership trends, Mr. Thiele said.
“As we get closer to the summer, the congestion will continue to increase and the ridership will go up,” he predicted, adding that as the weather gets warmer, and people do not have to stand out in the cold to wait for the train, commuters will be more likely to opt for the rails.
But Mr. Thiele’s plans do not include summer service in July and August.
“Under the circumstances,” Mr. Thiele said, “there was just a whole host of problems that made it hard to do this summer.”
When school lets out, Mr. Thiele expects ridership would decline sharply since the teachers will no longer be part of the commute, and it would not be cost effective. Also, the Long Island Rail Road cannot offer shuttle service during the South Fork’s peak months anyway, he pointed out, because the necessary train cars are needed elsewhere to fulfill the existing LIRR summer schedule.
“Right now, we have to work with what the railroad can provide us,” he said.
On Friday, Mr. Thiele led a meeting with LIRR President Helena Williams, local elected officials and representatives of State Senator Kenneth LaValle and U.S. Congressman Tim Bishop to discuss the future of the Commuter Connection and possibly funding sources for making it permanent starting this fall if the ridership warrants it.
Between January and February, ridership dropped from 6,958 total passengers to 4,117. School districts had a week of winter recess in February though, which may account for part of the drop in ridership.
Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot said the prospect of extending service past May 23 is not promising.
“What we’re seeing is it needs to be hugely subsidized,” she said.
Congressman Bishop promised to secure $500,000 in federal funding so Southampton can pay the LIRR for “inter-hamlet train service.” Will Jenkins, a spokesman for Mr. Bishop, explained that the funding would be for roadwork, but would free up the town’s operating budget to be able to afford the train service.
Ms. Kabot said when outside funding dries up, the town cannot continue service on the back of its taxpayers. Ms. Kabot said the railroad collects $12 million in tax revenue annually from Southampton Town, without providing $12 million in service in return. She emphasized that for the shuttle service to continue, it will be contingent on the money other levels of government are willing to contribute.
The town has been paying about $880 a day for Hampton Jitney and Montauk Bus Company to provide connections with Southampton and Bridgehampton train stations, and an additional $250 a day to fund 18-passenger town buses.
“You can’t do shuttle service without bus support,” said Joe Calderone, a spokesman for the LIRR. He explained that if the town does not continue to provide connecting buses, there will be no point to running the trains.
The service has been successful, and the LIRR would like to continue that success, he said. At this point, the rail road is taking its cues from local officials and trying to meet their needs, Mr. Calderone said.
“The real question here isn’t going to be the funding,” Mr. Thiele said. “It’s going to be the next couple of months, what direction the ridership is going in.”
Southampton Town is exploring other options for making commuting less burdensome in the meantime, Ms. Kabot said, such as expanding the mission of Southampton’s “senior shuttle” to include transporting town employees.
The town is also in the midst of a study of the feasibility of a comprehensive East End shuttle, serving East Hampton, Southampton, Shelter Island, Southold and Riverhead.
“We’re about a third of the way through the feasibility study,” said Tom Neely, director of public transportation and traffic safety for Southampton Town. Mr. Neely, who is also project manager for the study, said he hopes results will be ready by the end of the year.