Even before the July 25 fatal accident ground morning traffic to a complete standstill, the daily delays for eastbound commuters on County Road 39 in Southampton this spring and summer had already put the highway’s traffic flow on the radar of those tasked with trying to keep the East End accessible for the thousands of workers who flood here every day.
In the five years since a $18 million project to widen the western end of the highway to four lanes was completed, the once chronic backups that stretched for miles had largely vanished—until this spring. By late April, brake lights once again lit up the early morning twilight as eastbound morning traffic on Sunrise Highway approaching County Road 39 slowed to a crawl.
On some mornings by early summer, according to accounts from commuters, the backups stretched beyond the Hampton Bays exit on Sunrise Highway, with traffic moving at a snail’s pace from Exit 66, North Road Shinnecock, all the way to Magee Street.
“I come in here every morning just to relax a little,” said Ken Denise, a resident of Islip, while getting coffee in Goldberg’s Bagels one morning. “When you’re going that slow, it gets very tense. Once it opens up, everybody steps on it—you can see the road rage built up.”
After the stoplight at Magee Street, however, traffic largely eases up and flows smoothly again, even when construction to widen the roadway east of North Sea Road was under way.
The delays are confounding not only those who must sit in them, but also those tasked with trying to figure out why they are happening again.
Some observers wonder whether traffic volume, which is projected to grow at about 2.5 percent each year for the next two decades, had already overwhelmed the extra capacity created by the road widening that began in 2008. Estimates suggest that volume has grown by about 10 percent since the original widening project was completed; exact figures for current traffic were not immediately available, but the peak flow five years ago was estimated at 36,000 to 39,000 cars per day, so the new figures likely are well over 40,000 per day.
“We are beginning to see congestion that is a little more than we would have expected within just a few years of that roadway being widened,” Southampton Town’s Transportation Director Tom Neely said last week on a morning when many commuters reported it took as long as 90 minutes to get from Westhampton to Southampton Village. “It could be growth—maybe those estimates were conservative.”
Exactly how stretched the capacity of County Road 39 has become is highlighted by the extent of gridlock that ensues whenever a serious accident happens, like the fatal one that occurred last Thursday morning; the second that took place just four days later, on Monday morning, east of North Sea Road; and the accident almost exactly one year earlier that happened near the entrance to Sunrise Highway. All three required the closing of both directions of County Road 39 for several hours, with the longest closure taking place last Thursday, when the highway was closed for nearly nine hours, between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.
The roadway seems barely able to handle the volume of cars when conditions are perfect, and the slightest hiccups in the flow of traffic can spark snowballing backups.
“It’s just too much volume coming into that roadway,” Suffolk County Chief Engineer Bill Hillman said. “Speed and volume. You have cars doing 70 mph on [Sunrise Highway], and then all of a sudden they’re forced to slow down to 45—that’s the first thing. Then they run into the first traffic signal, and that substantially reduces capacity. Then the second light necks it down again. After that, it begins to flow well again, and the delays clear up.”
Mr. Hillman acknowledged that, since allowing cars to keep traveling 55 mph as Sunrise Highway morphs into County Road 39 is obviously not an option, keeping traffic flowing until it can find a new equilibrium at the reduced speed is a key. In the last two weeks, Suffolk County traffic engineers have made two adjustments to the timing of the traffic lights at Tuckahoe Road and Magee Street, lengthening the amount of time they are green along the main thoroughfare, according to Mr. Hillman.
The first adjustment, to the Tuckahoe Road light only, was made on Thursday, July 18. Traffic still backed up past Exit 66 on Sunrise Highway on the following Tuesday and Wednesday, and, as a result, another adjustment to the light’s timing was made on Friday, July 26. The county adjusted the timing of the light at Magee Street on the same day. Traffic backups have eased considerably in the days since, they said.
But Mr. Hillman acknowledged that even if the light adjustments were successful in relieving some of the pressure, they might not be a long-term solution.
“We know that traffic is gradually growing, but it seems that this year was something of an abnormal spike,” he said. “After the widening, the delays virtually disappeared. We don’t know why it peaked again this year. Regardless of the cause, we need to deal with it.”
The causes of specific delays on a given day can be many. School buses stopping traffic in both directions, cars pulling onto the highway from busy side streets like Hill Station Road, and the speed of traffic approaching County Road 39 from the west all contribute to the slow downs that can mushroom into a broad tangle of cars.
Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who was at the forefront of the years-long effort to get the roadway widened, noted that even large trucks that have to stop for lights and then take a long time to get up to speed again can add to the slowdowns. He said he’s suggested that the county consider putting all the lights on County Road 39 into blinking mode in the mornings to keep traffic flowing.
Whatever the cause, the traffic issues seem to only be at the western end of the road. Traffic beyond Sandy Hollow Road, by all accounts, flows well straight through to the end of County Road 39, where it intersects with Old Montauk Highway and Flying Point Road. Mr. Hillman attributed this to traffic equalizing once it passes the traffic lights, and the large number of cars that turn off the highway at Sandy Hollow and North Sea roads. The extent to which traffic along this stretch eases was demonstrated during Monday’s accident, which forced the entire road to be closed at the height of the morning rush hour but did not result in significant backups.
Regardless of whether the delays of this spring and summer are a new symptom of the improving economy, or if they are merely an anomaly, treating the conditions on the other parts of the county roadway will be an ongoing battle for years to come, Mr. Schneiderman said, as traffic continues to increase and widening the road is no longer an option.
“We’ve got nowhere else to go with it from here on,” he said. “We can’t add any more lanes, we can’t build new roads. The types of improvements now are going to have to focus on things like the timing of lights and keeping traffic flowing, and hoping that’s enough to make it work. Most of the time, anyway. Accidents are another story.”