Gas. Brake. Gas. Brake. The stop-and-go traffic is maddening. The minutes speed by as commuters slowly inch forward in the parade of trucks and other drivers trying to get to work on time.
For the past few months, traffic in Southampton has been backed up during the morning eastbound commute—in some cases all the way to Sunrise Highway. While the influx of vehicles is an expected frustration in the weeks before Memorial Day weekend, the traffic mostly seems to hinge on the completion of the road-widening project on County Road 39. Crews have been working furiously these past two weeks to finish before the big weekend arrives.
Even though traffic doesn
’t normally reach gridlock, the stop-and-go has caused much frustration for motorists.
The owner of Seasons of Southampton catering, the Clamman seafood market and Hamptons Caterers Showcase, Jean Mackenzie, is no stranger to the ins and outs of traffic flow in and around the village.
“I have been taking alternative routes,” she said. “You have to get your timing down, really. If you leave early to get into the village, you can get across the highway without much wait. If you leave a half an hour later, it takes two or three traffic lights to cross the highway.”
Nick Nielsen, the owner of Shippy’s Pumpernickels East Restaurant on Windmill Lane, said all the construction could deter people from coming to the village.
“If someone wants to get to the grocery story, it’s a nightmare, so they might think, ‘Why go here when I can go at nighttime or go to Hampton Bays?’” he said. “That’s what we’re doing instead of dealing with the traffic, we’ll go somewhere else.”
Joe Severino, general sales manager at Storms Motors on County Road 39, said he had to tell customers last week to drive on Hampton Road to get into the village instead of taking North Sea Road because the westbound lane was closed. Despite the inconvenience, Mr. Severino said once construction is done it’ll be worth it. “By and large I think they’re moving along pretty good,” he said. “I think it will probably be better. Of course, there will be more volume, but the expansion will improve it.”
The $5 million project entails the addition of a second eastbound lane on the 1.5-mile stretch from the intersection with North Sea Road near the 7-Eleven, where two lanes bottleneck, to the merge with Montauk Highway near the Princess Diner.
It was originally expected to begin in the fall of 2010 and had been delayed more than a year while Suffolk County awaited approval from the State Department of Transportation, and didn’t begin until after Labor Day last year.
The work is considered by county officials to be the continuation of widening completed in 2008 that added a second eastbound lane and continuous center turn lane on a 4.5-mile span of County Road 39 from Sunrise Highway to North Sea Road.
It has been hailed by officials as a way to alleviate traffic congestion. But so far the project has only added to it. Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman said by Memorial Day weekend, however, much of the work will be done, and the bottleneck that occurs by 7-Eleven on North Sea Road and the congestion around David Whites Lane will be reduced.
“I think we’ve managed pretty well considering the amount of construction there is,” Mr. Schneiderman said last week of the roadwork. “I know it’s backed up some, but I haven’t personally seen the bottleneck we used to have.”
Mr. Schneiderman attributed the back-up not only to the work but also to the “trade parade” of landscapers and contractors, as well as second-home owners who are rushing to get their houses ready for the season. He pointed to other possibilities, too—a 35-mph speed limit at the merge onto County Road 39 from Sunrise Highway, which he said is too slow, and the stoplight in front of Stony Brook Southampton. Mr. Schneiderman said he is talking with town officials about increasing the speed limit and will look into setting the light “on blink,” at least during critical traffic times.
Tom Neely, Southampton Town’s public transportation and traffic safety director, echoed Mr. Schneiderman, saying the back-up has many causes. “This time in May and early June is the perfect storm,” he said. “It’s a combination of residents, landscapers and teachers. A couple thousand teachers take [County Road] 39 to get to their schools.”
Add these factors together and place a motor accident in the mix, and you’ve got a mess on your hands.
On Wednesday morning, a minor car accident involving a bus threw eastbound traffic on Sunrise and County Road 39 into gridlock. Commuters were backed up to Exit 65 in Hampton Bays and crept slowly toward Southampton. On parallel Montauk Highway, traffic backed all the way from Southampton into Hampton Bays, a stretch of about 10 miles.
Mr. Neely said accidents are a good measure of the “fragility of our transportation system.”
“This is reinforced when it gets locked up and we really don’t have a back-up route of roads,” he said. “We’ve increased traffic volume 50 percent in 25 years. We’ve increased our road capacity 1 percent and that was the widening of County Road 39. When you put more cars in the same space, you’re going to have problems.”
In the past five years, the volume of traffic has remained steady, according to Mr. Neely. The average number of cars traveling on County Road 39 is approximately 35,000 to 40,000 a day during the summer season, he said. Traffic heading farther east through Water Mill on Montauk Highway hits approximately 30,000 cars per day in the summer. Mr. Neely said in July and August, daily traffic crossing the Shinnecock Canal on Sunrise Highway is approximately 9,000 vehicles higher than the average calculated over the entire year.
According to the town’s Sustainable East End Development Strategies summary report from 2006, if nothing is done to change the current transportation model in Southampton Town, congestion is expected to increase 76 percent in the 30 years between 1995 and 2025. Mr. Neely said the traffic growth rate is approximately 2.21 percent each year.
He suggested improvement to the public transit system to alleviate some of the growth. “It would reduce the rate of growth but it would not turn the clock back—it won’t be a 76-percent increase,” he said.
Adding the new eastbound lane, however, should help in the future with congestion-related accidents, he said: “Adding capacity will help the situation. The flow will move farther east.”
Southampton Town Police Chief Robert Pearce said he has also noticed that traffic has been very temperamental as of late. “Anytime there’s a 30-second delay, it backs it up for miles,” he said, adding that he too hopes the end of construction on County Road 39 around Memorial Day will alleviate the problem.
“If we look back before prior improvements were made, wait times on County Road 39 were excessive. Driving the stretch would take 35 to 45 minutes to go from one end of 39 to the other. Hopefully, we don’t return to those days.”