On Tuesday morning, crews from the Public Service Enterprise Group, the electric utility, were trimming trees along County Road 39 heading into Southampton as part of an islandwide tree trimming program—but a lack of communication between the company and Southampton Town made for a messy morning rush hour, as eastbound motorists were not notified of the roadwork before it began.
The work began at 7 a.m. and interrupted what is already a sometimes traffic-burdened commute for many. The right lane was closed heading eastbound on County Road 39 just after the terminus of Sunrise Highway, as a truck and crane idled and slowly performed the work. By 9 a.m., the resulting traffic jam stretched back miles, over the Shinnecock Canal and beyond Hampton Bays.
“It took me over 45 minutes to get from Hampton Bays to Southampton,” said Maureen Coley, a social worker at the David E. Rogers M.D. Center for HIV/AIDS Care in Southampton, who was almost an hour late for work on Tuesday morning because of the traffic. “For them to pick the middle of morning rush hour to block one lane of the most congested part of the trip was just colossally stupid.”
Town officials said that although they have met with PSEG representatives about the tree trimming program and welcomed the initiative, they were not advised of the work that took place Tuesday morning. Because of that, the town did not send out a message notifying subscribers of its Emergency Alerts system about the delays until 8:47 a.m.—well into the heart of rush hour, and nearly two hours after the work began.
Jeffrey Weir, a spokesperson for PSEG, said the company notified the Southampton Town police and highway departments of the work on Friday, as it was originally supposed to begin on Monday. Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor, however, said his office was not advised of the tree trimming plans. “They might have emailed us, but we didn’t see the email,” Mr. Gregor said. “It’s not our road, so we have no jurisdiction.”
He added that the county should have been notified because the roadway in question is a county road. Jason Hann, a spokesperson for Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, said his office was not contacted about the work either.
A representative from the police department confirmed that the department had been notified, although police did not warn motorists until the morning of the work, using a digital sign on the median of Sunrise Highway just before the Shinnecock Canal—where motorists didn’t see it until they were well into the backup.
Mr. Weir said the work was planned the way it was so that the company could complete it in one day. Unlike paving projects, he noted that tree trimming has to be done during daylight hours to ensure the safety of workers, as they deal with electrical wires and need to be able to see.
But because of the traffic concerns, PSEG worked through lunch and finished just after 2 p.m. “The whole idea was to compress the schedule and get it done in one day—one day of frustration and aggravation of traffic instead of doing it over multiple days,” he said.
Mr. Weir said this was not the first tree trimming project in Southampton Town, as they have been occurring since August. He said more will take place throughout the season until December, yet he did not have a time frame for when the next one would start. He said no more tree trimming is expected along County Road 39.
According to its website, PSEG trims trees that may pose a potential hazard to electrical wires and circuit boxes. The company says it meets with local officials to get approval for the tree trimming before coming in and conducting the work.
Town officials suggested that the traffic issue arose simply because PSEG may not have known about the congestion that often occurs where Sunrise Highway and County Road 39 merge. “I would think they may not fully understand the traffic issues out here,” said Tom Neely, the town’s director of public transportation and traffic safety.
Mr. Weir, however, said PSEG was well aware of the potential congestion, and argued that the work would have caused traffic problems at any time of the day.
“We live here, we work here, we’re part of the fabric of the community. We are aware of the traffic concerns, especially at the Sunrise Highway merge,” he said. “Yes, rush hour is bad. But traffic out there, no matter what time of the day, [is] stalled.”