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Officials call for improved mass transit on East End

State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, former Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and others held a press conference calling for better public transportation Monday in Riverhead. Photo by Tim Gannon

Improved rail service on the East End will be the topic of an upcoming meeting between town and village officials and representatives from the Long Island Rail Road, according to South Fork Assemblyman Fred Thiele. 

The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. July 8 at Riverhead Town Hall and officials are hoping to put together a priority list of things they’d like to see from the LIRR, Mr. Thiele said.

That list is likely to include a call to restore year-round weekend service on the North Fork, which was cut in 2010 and never restored, and bringing back the rail shuttle service that was used on the South Fork when County Road 39 was being widened, Mr. Thiele said.

It was not clear which LIRR officials would be present, but Mr. Thiele said he believes LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski will attend. It’s also unclear whether the meeting would be open to the public, as Mr. Thiele had said.

A LIRR spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mr. Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, along with other East End residents, held a press conference by the railroad in Riverhead Monday to discuss transportation issues on the East End.

“We called this meeting to highlight the issues around mass transportation on the East End,” said Ms. Throne-Holst, who is running a Democratic primary against attorney Dave Calone of East Setauket for the First Congressional District seat currently held by Republican Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). She said this was not a campaign event, and said she began working on many of these transportation issues as Southampton supervisor.

“We are dealing with a population that needs mass transit and doesn’t have it available,” she said, adding that enhanced rail could boost tourism and help local businesses on the East End.

“We know that public transportation has to be a part of the future of the East End,” Mr. Thiele said. “Our public highways are over capacity and the LIRR is under capacity on the East End.”

Mr. Thiele said Sunrise Highway is backed up from Southampton to Quogue at times, and yet the trains are few and far between.

“There are certain times of the year where you could lay down on the tracks and have a four- or five-hour nap and not have to worry about anything,” Mr. Thiele joked.

“Some people have to travel hundreds of miles round-trip to take somebody to the airport, and yet, the tracks are right here,” said Art Tillman, the chairman of the Southold Town Democratic Committee, who also spoke at the press conference. “The tracks are well maintained, all we need is the service.”

Mr. Tillman suggested that old rail stations like Calverton be reopened, so people going to businesses like Tanger Outlets, Splish Splash and the Long Island Aquarium could arrive by rail. Businesses could then provide a shuttle.

He said people could take a train to Greenport, and then have a shuttle to the Orient ferry for a trip to Connecticut casinos.

Mr. Thiele said another goal is to enact the recommendations of the state-funded Volpe study from 2009, which called for setting up a system of shuttle trains on the East End tracks that would coordinate with a network feeder buses to bring people to various places on the East End.

The state’s Capital Budget allocated $37.2 million for new “diesel multiple units,” often called “scoot trains.” The scoot trains were expected to ride back and forth on the LIRR main line between Ronkonkoma and Greenport in place of the passenger trains there now.

But earlier this year, MTA spokesman Sal Arena said in an interview that  the scoot trains that were available for purchase weren’t compatible with the LIRR track system on the East End.

Mr. Thiele said that continues to be the holdup with the scoot trains.

As for the restoration of weekend service in the winter on the North Fork, Mr. Arena said in February: “Ridership on weekend Greenport trains is historically very light in the off-season, generally less than 30 people per train. Given the high cost of operating this service and the low utilization, there are no plans at present to restore weekend service to Greenport between December and May.”

To make the expanded service work, Mr. Thiele said it needs to be marketed and a plan needs to be in place to make people aware the trains are there. He suggested bringing together citizen activists, the business community and local government to develop a plan.

“We want the LIRR to make decisions and take what they probably consider to be a business risk,” he said.

Mr. Calone was not in attendance at the press conference but commented by phone afterward.

“We need a representative in Congress to fight for more transportation aid of the East End and that starts with changing the way federal transportation dollars are allocated,” he said. “Right now, most of the federal transportation dollars are allocated through a transportation council that is dominated by New York City. There should be dedicated federal funding for Eastern Long Island so we don’t have to compete with the city for federal transportation funding.”

Photo Caption: State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, former Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and others held a press conference Monday in Riverhead calling for better public transportation. (Credit: Tim Gannon)