Column: Does anybody worry about Bridge Traffic?


Great controversies, for all their sturm und drang, very often fade away just as fads and fashions do and, like the Hula Hoop and Nehru jackets, often seem a little silly in retrospect.

Once upon a time, one such hot topic on Shelter Island was so-called “ Bridge Traffic,” drivers just passing through on their way from one ferry to the other. The Orient Point Ferry to New London was considered a major generator of local Bridge Traffic, attracting or dispersing South Forkers headed to or from New England.

These drivers did nothing for the Island except clog the roads, according to their local critics. They didn’t stop for supplies at Fedi’s or the hardware store. They didn’t stop for lunch. They didn’t volunteer for the fire department or the ambulance. They just drove right through town.

When I first came to work as editor of the Reporter in the year 2000, Bridge Traffic had been a hot topic for some time. One reason was that North Ferry Co. needed bigger boats to move its lines faster. People who considered Bridge Traffic a blight were aghast at the very idea of boats any bigger than the aging, laughably confined 14-car clunkers North Ferry was then running to Greenport and back. Bigger boats would simply generate more traffic, the naysayers said, just as a new highway or bridge not only would open up a once bucolic countryside to ugly sprawl but bring a new surge in vehicles.

Another reason was Cross Sound Ferry’s push for permission to operate a South Fork route to New London. East Hampton Town, which had the only South Fork harbors capable of handling big ferries, wanted nothing to do with it; the East Hampton Town Board amended the zoning code to ban ferry terminals as a permitted use.

That really got up the dander of Bridge Traffic critics, who complained that Islanders were being forced to bear all the traffic sent from the South Fork to Orient.

Back then, looking out my window at the Reporter’s new office in the Center, I kept looking for that awful Bridge Traffic I’d read so much about. Soon I began to wonder if the occasional pods of six or seven cars I’d barely noticed going by constituted the notorious blight that had been dominating the local news. They’d take less than a minute to go by and then all would be quiet again.

That was it? That was the notorious Bridge Traffic on which the Reporter had spent so much ink?

I live off Route 114 in North Haven so I’ve been used to South Ferry traffic for years. Sometimes, in the summer, I might have to wait a minute, maybe two, for the line of disgorged vehicles to go by before I can pull out of my community onto the state highway. That might be a little irritating when I’m in a mad rush but, gee, Islanders are never in mad rushes, right? How could a little wait for a few cars to go by ruin their lives?

North Ferry and South Ferry have been running bigger boats for more than a decade. I have noticed only an improvement in the quality of life, with shorter, faster-moving lines of idling cars in the Heights and in Greenport. And there’s no longer a grumble about Bridge Traffic.
I’ve seen many other fights fade into irrelevance over the years.

Back in 1998, some critics said a two-percent open space tax would depress the real estate market, deplete the tax rolls and force up real estate prices. After Shelter Island and the four other East End towns enacted and implemented the open space tax, the hot second home market continued roaring right along and local tax receivers continued to rake in the revenue, pretty much until the national bubble burst in 2007 and 2008.

Remember all the anguish about putting a cell tower at the landfill, ruining the scenic beauty of Shelter Island and exposing nearby residents to dangerous emissions? Remember all the resistance to the 4-poster? Maybe, for some critics and naysayers, the jury is still out on these and other sore points. But I don’t think the cell tower has ruined Shelter Island’s scenic beauty and I really doubt there is any more risk living near a cell tower than there is dealing with life in the modern world, such as letting your dentist take an extra x-ray of your jaw.

Looking back, I’m beginning to think an ironic pattern emerges when we look at the legacies of past controversies: It hasn’t been the things that happened in the face of opposition — things like bigger ferries, the cell tower and the acquisitions made through the town’s open space program — that have hurt our quality of life; rather, it’s the things that haven’t happened — like stricter zoning, tougher code enforcement, and funding for the continuation of a robust 4-poster program, as a few examples — that have hurt the community.

I think the lack of any dark skies requirements in the town code will fall into that category as time goes by; the failure to provide any more affordable housing stock since the successful Bowditch Road project will bite us one day, too.

The proposal to turn the Ram’s Head into a drug rehab center doesn’t fall into that category, however, does it? I suspect there’s another pattern worth noting here: as far as the welfare of any community is concerned, private proposals that are really all about making money need to face some fierce opposition to soften their rough edges and, in some cases, shoot them dead.

I like controversy. It’s a good thing — not just because it gives us news people something interesting to write about. It allows for ideas to be tested and explored in the public arena. Even when the critics look a little silly in retrospect, they deserve credit for forcing a healthy debate and for caring.