11/18/13 4:00pm
11/18/2013 4:00 PM

KATHERINE SCHRODEDER PHOTO | Alan Martinez, third place winner in a “World’s Fastest Shucker” contest, shows off his work at Claudio’s Restaurant.

After the last tasting of wine was sipped and the final oyster was shucked, organizers of the first-ever Taste North Fork festival are hailing the event a success. So successful, in fact, the North Fork Promotion Council is already working toward repeating the event in six months.

On Monday, NFPC president Joan Bischoff said members voted unanimously to bring back the event sometime in March or April following the large spike in business the three-day Veterans Day festival brought to the North Fork.

“The enthusiasm of the North Fork is what is driving this,” Mr. Bischoff said. “We’re going to try to schedule it on a weekend where there is something already going on, like restaurant week. It will be a good way to start off the summer season.”

Taste North Fork was made possible through a portion of a $335,000 “I Love NY” grant, aiming to help promote agritourism on the East End. Since the East End Tourism Alliance, Long Island Wine Council and North Fork Promotion Council unveiled the plan in August the event has received an overwhelming response from local businesses and town officials, organizers said.

“Businesses had anywhere from 20 to 40 percent increases in traffic and sales,” said Brain DeLuca, of East End Tourism Alliance. “We had some vineyards with 60 to 80 percent increases in traffic and sales. Overall it was a tremendous success. The was a lot of collaboration between the businesses.”

Throughout the long weekend more than 50 local wineries, restaurants, hotels and shops offered a full range of activities celebrating local wines and foods across the region.

Participants had the option of hopping on a free shuttle bus provided by Hampton Jitney that ran in a loop between Riverhead and Greenport. There were also feeder buses from the Cross Sound Ferry and Long Island Rail Road. The free ridership was another first on the North Fork.

“We had a lot of ridership,” Mr. DeLuca said. “Over 1,000 people took the jitney. Hopefully this will demonstrate to the county and the state that need to start funding something similar in coming years.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement that he was pleased with the turnout.

“We launched the ‘Taste NY’ campaign earlier this year to highlight the superior products that are grown and produced right here in New York and last weekend’s “Taste North Fork” event marked our latest effort,” he said. “The event was a great success in promoting the local food and beverage products to New Yorkers and visitors, and we will continue to push this ‘buy local’ movement all across the state to support our vibrant agricultural industry.”

cmurray@timesreview.com 

10/17/13 6:00pm
10/17/2013 6:00 PM

RACHEL YOUNG FILE PHOTO | Tom Spurge in August on the platform at the Ronkonkoma train station, where he makes the first of two transfers when he commutes from Greenport to Penn Station for his job in Manhattan.

The Long Island Rail Road extended its weekend “summer service” on the North Fork further into the fall.

The LIRR agreed over the summer to extend service into November and has now posted some signs at train stations indicating weekend service will run through Dec. 1. Printed schedules and the PDF format on MTA.info, however, still lists service ending Oct. 13.

Weekend service between Greenport and Ronkonkoma will now be extended to Dec. 1 and include Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, according to the LIRR.

After Dec. 1, there will be no weekend train service between Greenport and Ronkonkoma until spring. However, the service may resume earlier than in years past, according to signs at the train stations.

SEE ALSO: From the North Fork to NYC, commuters tell their stories

Weekend service on the Greenport line previously ran from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend as a result of budget cuts implemented in 2010.

The LIRR said the restoration of service is a response to customer demand.

“The Long Island Rail Road restored a number of service cuts, implementing the changes gradually as budgeting allowed over the last few month,” said MTA spokesman Sal Arena. “All along the plan was for the LIRR to extend the weekend service to Greenport as far into November as possible.”

He said the weekend service will resume in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

The weekend and holiday schedule on the North Fork line currently includes two westbound trains per day and two Greenport-bound trains per day.

Jim Ellwood of Riverhead, an advocate for better East End transportation, said the announcement over the summer didn’t give a specific date for when the weekend service was being extended.

“Myself and some other transportation advocates met with them to express our concerns about the loss of the weekend service and we asked if they would consider extending it to the Thanksgiving Day weekend, and they agreed,” Mr. Ellwood said. “The North Fork is very much a fall economy.”

Mr. Ellwood said it’s “frustrating” that the printed schedules don’t reflect the extended weekend schedules, because some people might not know that the service is still available on weekends.

“We fought to get that service back and we don’t want to have a situation where people don’t use it because they don’t know it’s running,” Mr. Ellwood said.

The MTA website displays the correct schedules if searching under a specific starting and arriving location, just not on the PDF schedule, Mr. Ellwood said.

M. Arena said in August: “The MTA was able to identify additional money, revenue from dedicated state taxes as well as internal cost-savings, that could be used to enhance train service and other customer amenities.”

The extension of weekend service on the North Fork is funded through this money, he said.

The MTA “made this decision based on customer demand and specifically to extend service to the fall harvest period, an important tourist season for the region,” Mr. Arena said.

tgannon@timesreview.com

09/01/13 8:00am
09/01/2013 8:00 AM
LIRR

STEVE ROSSIN PHOTO | LIRR riders board an eastbound train out of Riverhead earlier this summer.

It’s a summer Friday afternoon and you’re stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway, headed from the city to the North Fork. If you’re traveling by bus for Orient, where I live, delays on the LIE could make the trip take as long as four hours.

Think this is bad? It could be a lot worse.

Suppose there were no Long Island Rail Road. Last year, the LIRR ran a great ad on its trains that imagined just such a disastrous turn of events. “Up to nine Long Island Expressway Lanes would be needed to handle the additional traffic,” declared the ad, which ended with the word “cough.”

In fact, more than 260,000 people ride the LIRR on the average weekday.

Statistics like that make me a strong supporter of the nation’s second-busiest commuter railroad, Long Island’s best hope for increasing personal mobility while decreasing congestion, consumption of fossil fuels and air pollution.

I know, I know. Frequency of service on the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma-Greenport line — the service that matters most to us — is woefully inadequate. But that could change.

As previously reported in these pages, funding is now available for the purchase of “scoot” trains on this route. While the railroad has yet to select the equipment it will buy, it’s shopping for trains that would be smaller and cheaper to operate than the current equipment on the Greenport line — a locomotive and two double-deck coaches.

A railroad spokesman recently told Times/Review reporter Tim Gannon, “As envisioned by the LIRR, scoot trains would allow for more frequent train service than currently provided.”

Hey, maybe that widely reviled payroll tax for public transit isn’t so bad after all.

Even without such improvements, there are ways right now to take advantage of the LIRR that many North Forkers may not realize.

For instance, savvy summertime travelers who’ve had it with the LIE can catch the Friday-only 3:55 p.m. train out of Penn Station, fairly confident that they’ll reach their North Fork destination on time. Arrival at Greenport is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. Moreover, on the Ronkonkoma-Greenport leg of the trip, passengers can unwind with a glass of one of the local wines sold aboard the Friday-only train.

Unfortunately, that train operates only between the Memorial Day and Columbus Day weekends. But Saturday and Sunday service, once offered year-around but scaled back in 2010 to the same operating period as the Friday-only train, has been extended and will run between April and November.

Did I mention the Ronkonkoma solution to getting to Kennedy Airport?

If you hire someone to drive you from Orient to JFK, it can cost as much as $150 each way.

I’ve got a cheaper way: Drive to the Ronkonkoma station (LIE exit 60), park your car free (for an unlimited time) in the LIRR’s huge outdoor parking lot and board one of the trains operating nearly hourly to Jamaica. Upon arriving there, take the escalator to the station’s mezzanine and walk a few hundred feet to the platform where the Port Authority’s AirTrain departs every seven to 20 minutes for JFK’s terminals.

Train fare from Ronkonkoma to Jamaica is $13.50 at peak hours and $9.75 off-peak. Add $5 for the AirTrain, and you’ve saved well over $100. I know; I’ve done it.

Some folks who’ve used the Ronkonkoma station tell me they’re worried about missing the train because of the time consumed finding a parking spot in the often crowded free lot. That worried me, too, until I began using THE TIMETABLE.

By consulting the Ronkonkoma Branch timetable, you can determine when the next train from the city is supposed to reach the station. I schedule my arrival at the station around that time so that I can pull into one of the parking spaces just vacated by disembarking passengers. (On weekdays, there’s usually a 15- to 30-minute window between trains arriving from the city and leaving for it.)

Some people also worry that their cars could be vandalized in the parking lot. Never in the 16 years we’ve left our car there (once for as long as seven weeks) has it been damaged. Our luck did run out last year, however, when two exterior accessories — a rooftop kayak rack and a rear-end bike rack — were stolen. Foolishly, neither had been locked to the car.

It seemed like a small price to pay for a service that has worked so well.

Orient resident John Henry has been commuting to Manhattan for 16 years, usually using the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma-New York City service.

08/02/13 7:00pm
08/02/2013 7:00 PM
LIRR

STEVE ROSSIN PHOTO | LIRR riders board an train out of Riverhead about 1:30 p.m. last week.

The Long Island Rail Road will extend its summer schedule on the Greenport to Ronkonkoma line by 10 weeks, stretching into November, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said.

The Long Island Rail Road, through its parent company, the MTA,  has been discontinuing all weekend service between Greenport and Ronkonkoma after Columbus Day and before Memorial Day since 2010.

Summer service, as it’s now called, will now begin in April and end in November, said LIRR spokesman Sal Arena.

After November, there will again be no weekend service between Greenport and Ronkonkoma, he said.

“The MTA was able to identify additional money, revenue from dedicated state taxes as well as internal cost-savings, that could be used to enhance train service and other customer amenities,” Mr. Arena said. “The LIRR is making a number of improvements with its share of that money, including the extension of weekend service on the North Fork.

“It made this decision based on customer demand and specifically to expend service to the fall harvest period, an important tourist season for the region.”

About seven years ago, the LIRR was considering discontinuing service between Greenport and Ronkonkoma altogether, but backed off that plan.

“This service investment shows that the MTA and LIRR are committed to expanding and improving service to the East End,” South Fork state Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said of the move.

Mr. Thiele has been an advocate for increasing train service on the East End, and one of the projects he has touted also got some money from the MTA. A proposal to establish a network of smaller “scoot” trains between Greenport and Ronkonkoma, as well as in other areas on Long Island, received $37.2 million from the state.

Currently, the LIRR is exploring the possibility of diesel-powered Scoot service on the Oyster Bay Branch and on the Main Line east of Ronkonkoma, Mr. Arena said.

The $37.2 million funding for such a purchase is in the current (2010-2014) MTA Capital Program, and will remain available even if it is not expended by the end of 2014, Mr. Arena said.

“Scoot” is a railroad industry term used to describe a train that would shuttle regularly between the first and last stops on a particular branch or branch segment, according to Mr. Arena.

Currently, the LIRR runs only about two trains per day in each directions between Greenport and Riverhead on weekends in the summer, and about three trains per day between Greenport and Riverhead during weekdays, prompting calls from East End residents and officials for better service.

“As envisioned by the LIRR, scoot service would allow for more frequent train service than currently provided,” Mr. Arena said. It “would encourage intra-branch and intra-Island travel, but also would require a transfer to electric trains for those traveling on to New York City.

“The LIRR is currently looking for alternate (smaller) diesel trains that would be more cost-effective to operate and maintain, as compared with both the LIRR’s existing diesel fleet and with electric trains.”

The LIRR does not have specific timeline or start date for either purchasing the alternate diesel fleet and/or initiating expanded Scoot service for East of Ronkonkoma, he said.

“The scoot train could be much smaller to than the standard 10 or 12 car consist,” Mr. Arena said, “perhaps just one, two cars or three coach cars, depending on demand.”

tgannon@timesreview.com

03/29/13 11:00am
03/29/2013 11:00 AM

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Don Fisher, president of the Railroad Museum of Long Island, with what’s left of the historic Engine 39 in Riverhead.

After sitting in Riverhead for 33 years, waiting to be restored, Engine 39, a steam engine built in 1929 and operated by the Long Island Rail Road through 1955, may be headed for Pennsylvania.

The Railroad Museum of Long Island has signed a contract with the Strasburg Rail Road Company in Ronks, Pa., to essentially split the cost of restoring the steam engine. Strasburg would do the work within three years of receiving the money and the restored train would remain with Strasburg, where it would operate on the company’s property for 44 years.

The deal was bittersweet, according to museum president Don Fisher of Southold.

Train enthusiasts brought Engine 39 to Railroad Avenue in Riverhead on a flatbed truck in 1980, with the goal of restoring it to operating condition and then running tourist trips between the railroad museum’s two locations in Riverhead and Greenport.

But the group and its predecessors never had enough money to finish the job, even after getting an $800,000 grant in 1996. The engine’s boiler and firebox are already in Strasburg, where they were being repaired until the money ran out. Only the bottom part of Engine 39, the wheel assembly, is currently in Riverhead.

“It is a bittersweet thing, because they were people who were hoping to see it running here, but the challenges on Long Island were great,” Mr. Fisher said. “We don’t have a place to get water here, there’s coaling facilities, the museum doesn’t own a service facility, we’re more than 100 miles from the nearest class-one railroad [Amtrak] and there are no more steam-qualified skilled mechanics to keep it running. The challenges against us running it here on the North Fork as a regular service have grown to the point of being monumental.”

The contract with Strasburg, which was signed March 14 after more than five months of negotiation, call for the museum to raise $900,000 in 2013 and transport the locomotive to the Strasburg property. Strasburg, in turn, will contribute about $1.1 million toward the project, Mr. Fisher said.

Once the $900,000 from the railroad museum is raised, Strasburg will complete restoration of the engine in three years and will then operate the locomotive on its property for a period of 44 years, according to the agreement.

While the Railroad Museum of Long Island has 15 years to come up with the $900,000, the contract calls for that amount to increase by 3.5 percent per year, so it’s imperative to raise the money quickly, said Mr. Fisher.

Museum officials originally planned to initiate a fundraising campaign for the entire $2 million. The new deal cuts that number in half, Mr. Fisher said.

The group plans to begin a $1 million fundraising campaign targeting foundations, railroad preservationists and individuals, he said.

“If we can get a million people to give a dollar, that’s a million dollars,” Mr. Fisher said.

Strasburg operates a steam locomotive repair and restoration facility on its property and runs a four-mile “heritage” railroad with five locomotives even older than Engine 39.

The oldest was built in 1906 and the newest in 1926, according to Linn Moedinger, president of Strasburg Railroad.

The Strasburg Railroad is the oldest railroad in the country that’s still operating under its original charter, although it operates mostly within its own property and not on public railroad tracks like Amtrak, Mr. Moedinger said. The trains run throughout the Pennsylvania Dutch Country in Lancaster County, southwest of Philadelphia, he said.

“It’s a shame that it’s been sitting for so long, it’s a nice engine and it will fit in nice right here,” Mr. Moedinger said. “Strasburg presents the best shot for the most number of people seeing it on a regular basis.”

It is very difficult to get permission to run a steam locomotive on tracks used by public railroads, he added.

The last time Strasburg ran on public rails was in 1998 — and that was for the purposes of filming, he said.

Mr. Fisher said the local railroad museum never had a guarantee that the LIRR would allow Engine 39 to run on its tracks.

tgannon@timesreview.com

08/31/12 2:04pm
08/31/2012 2:04 PM

 

Hometown Taxi owner Bryan DaPalma of Southampton and Supervisor Sean Walter talked about relocating part of his taxi business to the Riverhead train station.

Media members outnumbered prospective tenants at Friday’s tour of the 102-year-old Riverhead train station, which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is trying to lease out.

The MTA has issued a request for proposals from companies who might want to lease space at the station, which hasn’t been used as a railroad station since 1972. The station has been vacant for most of the time since then.

The deadline for submitting proposals is Sept. 28.

The MTA gave a tour of the building at noon, and only two prospective renters showed, though representatives from three media outlets did, along with some Riverhead Town officials, including town historian Georgette Case.

One company that is definitely interested is Southampton-based Hometown Taxi, which runs cars throughout the East End.

Owner Bryan Deparma said he’d like to use the building to dispatch cabs. The company currently runs cars in Riverhead but has to monitor them from an office in either Southold or Southampton, he said. It also has contracts for medical transport to local hospitals, and a contract Maureen’s Haven to transport homeless to local shelters in the winter, he said.

“This is perfect for what we want to do,” he said of the train station, though he said the building might be a bit big for his needs.

“I don’t need a big space,” he said. “If I just could use the ticket counter” and someone else could occupy the rest of the station, “that would work”, he said.

The only other prospective tenant to take the tour was Ike Israel of Riverhead-based Richmond Realty Corp., who said the company just wanted to see what was available.

Anthony Coates of Riverhead, an adviser to the town supervisor, did not take Friday’s tour, but told the News-Review in an interview that he and his 20-year-old daughter, Courtney, who is a business student at Stony Brook University, plan to submit a proposal to rent the train station as a restaurant/cafe type establishment.

Mr. Coates, who has been involved in the restaurant business in the past, said that with the recent closure of Riverhead establishments like East Enders and Off Main,  “there’s no place to capture a quick doughnut or muffin in town.”

John Coyne of the MTA’s real estate department, who gave the tour, said the public authority has contacted some businesses, such as Dunkin’ Donuts, about the possibility of leasing space in the Riverhead station, as well as in other MTA train stations.

The MTA doesn’t usually receive proposals to rent its stations until its close to the deadline for submissions, he said, adding that depending on what the response is, the MTA may push the deadline back.

A decision on whether to rent the entire site to one company or subdivide it among more than one company also will depend on the response, he said.

Mr. Coyne said he’s grateful Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter was able to get publicity for the tour and the lease opportunity by reaching out to the local media.

The MTA undertook about $1 million in renovations to the Railroad Avenue station and then leased it to the town at no charge in 2002, with a condition that it be occupied by a nonprofit organization. But the town has had little success in finding a tenant since then, even when it offered the building rent-free.

Mr. Walter said the conditions the MTA had put on the lease in the past made it difficult to find a tenant.

The MTA taking the lead in looking for tenants is a new strategy, he said.

“I was getting ready to write a letter to the MTA telling them we were condemning the building because of the condition it was in,” Mr. Walter said in an interview. But before he got the chance to send the letter, Police Chief David Hegermiller suggested he talk to Long Island Rail Road president Helena Williams, whom the chief knows.

Mr. Walter said he called Ms. Williams earlier this year and she told him she would issue the RFP for the train station. Of the town’s inability to get anywhere with the MTA in the past, she told him he wasn’t talking to the right people, the supervisor said.

tgannon@timesreview.com