Suffolk County officials lined up to congratulate themselves recently about the completion of work to add a second eastbound lane to County Road 39. And why not? The work was completed well ahead of schedule and cost less than two-thirds the original estimate. “Quick and cheap” seems to be the new county government mantra, so the East End citizenry should be thrilled, right? Maybe not.
In my opinion, this widened 6-mile stretch of road will be even less safe for drivers than its three-lane predecessor, and it will be no real solution to our vaunted traffic jams, especially if you are heading east of the Southampton Princess Diner. In addition, CR39 will be even less visually pleasing than it has been, since proposals to beautify this “gateway” to East Hampton and the eastern half of Southampton Town were eliminated from the project.
There are four main issues that residents and visitors to the towns of Southampton and East Hampton will be confronted with, now that the ribbon-cutting ceremony is over:
1. Increased travel speeds: Because the new travel lanes are wider and visually unimpeded, drivers are destined to travel at much higher speeds, regardless of the posted speed limit. Studies have shown that drivers’ behavior is based on the “look and feel” of a road, not speed limit signs. If the road is wide and straight, for example, they will invariably drive faster. Most drivers are already doing 50 to 55 mph even though the posted speed limit is now 35 mph.
2. Reduced turning safety: Left-hand turns on a busy two-lane road like Montauk Highway are dangerous enough because of the need to cross oncoming traffic. On a heavily traveled four-lane road like the new CR39, left-hand turns constitute borderline insanity. However, the new road design still permits left-hand turns at numerous points. Although there were safer proposed options for providing access to businesses, they were rejected by the county.
3. No aesthetic improvements: Many local residents felt this road-widening project was a great opportunity to improve the appearance of CR39 at the same time. Once again, though, “quick and cheap” trumped any desired need for road beautification.
4. Relocated traffic jams: Residents and visitors driving to Water Mill and all points east in Southampton and East Hampton towns will experience no change whatsoever in traffic volume and tie-ups on Montauk Highway, since this project obviously does not reduce vehicle volume in any way. And if you buy the “induced demand” theory, the increased CR39 road “capacity” may actually cause traffic volume to increase. Since CR39 eastbound ends at the two-lane Montauk Highway by the Princess Diner, some people believe the bottleneck will simply be moved from the Lobster Inn to this intersection.
You might think I was opposed to the widening of CR39. I wasn’t. But my eventual decision to support the project came from the now mistaken belief that many other road improvements would have accompanied the addition of a fourth lane. What should have been included in the CR39 project to reduce travel speed (without stopping it), decrease the accident rate, and make the road more visually appealing to befit the rural and historic nature of our area? Here are the four most significant examples, in my opinion:
1. Medians: Decorative medians should have been installed along most of the roadway to prevent left turns and make the road appear narrower to the distracted driver, who would typically drive slower as a result.
2. Two-lane roundabouts: Intersections with traffic lights should have been replaced by two-lane roundabouts to slow driving speeds without stopping vehicles. This roundabout design would also have permitted safe U-turns for drivers wishing to enter a business on the opposite side of the road.
3. Buried power and communications lines: Does this requirement sound familiar? This project should have included a budget for burying the power and communications lines while the roadwork was being done. You only have to drive on roads that do not have these ugly lines to appreciate the difference. And now, if the proposed LIPA use of even taller and bigger poles happens in our area, aesthetics (and property values) will be further degraded.
4. Landscaping/aesthetics: The entire route should have included low plantings in the new medians and taller ones at the roadsides, as well as more appropriate business signage. Not only would the route look much better as a gateway, it would help to calm the traffic by having the appearance of a country road instead of a highway.
It’s true these improvements would have added substantial cost and time to the CR39 project, and that’s probably why they were not done. You only have to look at many of the roads in western Suffolk County to understand the mentality at work here. Ironically though, I would predict there will be a second CR39 road “improvement” project—to fix the problems created by this one—and it will cost a lot more. The only question in my mind is how long it will take to happen.
I suppose we can grudgingly live with an ugly road; it’s always been ugly, so what’s new? But if we get a more dangerous road in the bargain, that will not be acceptable.
Here are some non-professional, common sense suggestions for driving on the “new” CR39:
1. Always drive in the left-hand lane on this road, regardless of traffic volume or whether you are going east or west. It only takes one car or truck driver with poor judgment who enters this road from a local business to cause a major accident in the right-hand lane. Your chances of avoiding that type of accident are probably better if you stay to the left. (Of course, while in the left lane, be aware of drivers up ahead who might want to make a left turn and don’t enter the center turning lane properly.)
2. Never make a left turn on this road, unless you are at an intersection with a left turn signal. If you need to get to a business on the other side of the road, figure out in advance how to reach that location from the other direction and take the extra time (if necessary) to do it.
3. Pay special attention on this road to leaving enough room between yourself and the driver in front of you. Granted, this should be the case wherever you drive, but I’ve been told the largest number of accidents on the “old” CR39 came from rear-end collisions. I don’t see anything about the new design that will lessen this type of accident—only conditions that might cause it to increase, as well as be more severe if the travel speeds are higher.
4. Drive defensively, especially on this road. I know, you’re a great driver and you’ve never caused an accident. But you have no control over the bad drivers who do cause accidents, often involving good drivers as victims. There are courses in defensive driving; I took one many years ago that permanently changed my driving behavior.
5. Drive at the prevailing traffic speed, even if it is above the posted speed limit. Don’t drive faster, or slower. Big variations in driving speeds on congested roads cause impatient drivers to change lanes frequently—another big reason for serious accidents. It may seem I am encouraging you to break the law by driving above the posted speed limit at times, but if all other drivers are doing so, it is safer to drive at their speed. Did you ever try driving at 55 mph on the Long Island Expressway? That’s what it will be like if you try to drive 35 mph on CR39, unfortunately.
6. Overall, use the “new” CR39 less, or not at all. Driving on known dangerous roads is a risky proposition at best. The more you do it, the greater the chances of being involved in an accident.
Safe driving on the “new” CR39, if you must!?