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A small bus and a big change for East End transportation


Conceptual art depicting the East End Shuttle from the 5TRT website. Creation of a Regional Transit Authority is the first step to changing transportation services to the East End. Click image to enlarge.

What would a Peconic Bay Transportation Authority mean forShelter Island?

The Town Board will be exploring that question as it decides howto vote on a request from State Senator Ken LaValle to support abill authorizing a public referendum on the creation of a newRegional Transit Authority (RTA). According to recent proposals onand studies of East End transportation issues, a transitauthority’s presence on Shelter Island could amount to one smallpublic bus on a fixed route, a demand-based reservation schedule,or a combination of the two.

RTA REFERENDUM

The proposed referendum would be a non-binding vote intended togauge public support for the creation of an RTA to replace theMetropolitan Transit Authority in the five East End towns. The billis being amended to include Brookhaven Town as well. Although thetowns are being asked to support the bill, State Legislature mustalso approve it before it becomes law and authorizes the publicreferendum. A similar bill has been proposed unsuccessfully in thepast; the announcement that the MTA will terminate year-round NorthFork train service while continuing to collect an estimated $60million in taxes from the East End has given renewed impetus to theeffort.

The RTA bill is sponsored in the Assembly by Fred Thiele of SagHarbor and has the support of Democratic East End Assemblyman MarcAlessi as well as Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine and U.S.Congressman Tim Bishop. Southold, Southampton, East Hampton andRiverhead town officials have also expressed support for themeasure; the Southold Town Board unanimously supported theenactment of the law authorizing the referendum in a vote onFebruary 23. The Shelter Island Town Board will vote on the homerule request after the bill is amended.

Although the referendum does not specify routes and services,those advocating for a new RTA also support a plan to establish acoordinated bus and rail system called the East End Shuttle,proposed by the non-profit group Five Towns Rural Transit or 5TRT.Citizens from each of the East End towns organized 5TRT in 2005 atthe end of the SEEDS (Sustainable East End Development Strategies)process, which was initiated by the East End Mayors and SupervisorsAssociation in 1996 and funded in 2001 to build consensus aboutland use and transportation issues. Patricia Shillingburg ofShelter Island sits on the 5TRT board as treasurer.

According to the 5TRT website, the shuttle network will replaceLong Island Rail Road trains and Suffolk County Transit buses onthe East End. Shuttle trains will connect at Speonk and Ronkonkomato LIRR trains destined for stops farther west on Long Island andManhattan. Benefits of an East End Shuttle system are listed as 1)a reduction in East End traffic congestion; 2) increased transitservice, as often as every half hour; 3) a more efficient andaffordable transportation system; 4) environmental benefitsassociated with reduced fuel consumption and pollution; and 5) asingle coordinated system as opposed to separate train and busproviders.

VOLPE CENTER REVIEW

The East End Shuttle concept has been reviewed by the VolpeNational Transportation Systems Center, a research arm of the U.S.Department of Transportation that reviews projects for federal,state and local agencies. The resulting East End TransportationStudy issued in September 2009 was supported by the localgovernments of each of the five East End towns and funded with a$300,000 New York Department of State Shared Municipal ServicesIncentive Grant. The Town of Southampton acted as lead agency onthe grant and on the study it funded.

The study inventoried existing transportation conditions andpresented costs, funding mechanisms and institutional alternativesfor a “Dual Concept approach to meeting East End transportationneeds. East End residents were originally presented with twoalternatives for a new shuttle system. Public feedback indicatedthat the North Fork preferred a system utilizing existinginfrastructure with incremental improvements to rail and busservice, while South Fork residents wanted a new coordinatedbus-rail system, served by smaller shuttle trains and more stationsthan those currently used by the LIRR. Ergo, the “dual approach,which will involve frequent and coordinated bus and railservice.

A BUS ON SHELTER ISLAND?

Between the forks and between these two transportation planslies Shelter Island, which would be served by a small bus. In thetwo original alternatives, that bus would follow a fixed routeprimarily from ferry to ferry, or would be a “demand responseservice, described in the Volpe study as “encompassing a range ofservice concepts, from door-to-door service by reservation to¹”flex’ routes that operate on a defined route,but with the capacity to make deviations to pick up or drop offpassengers. Either approach would require a single vehicle atroughly the same cost. The fixed route proposal calls forferry-to-ferry runs on a 30-minute schedule during peak times and aflexible schedule during off-peak times.

In a section called “Links between the forks, the Volpe studylists bus routes from Westhampton to Riverhead and the existingS-92 bus as the primary links, with only this parentheticalreference to Shelter Island: “(Depending on the nature of theservice, the Shelter Island bus route conceivably could serve thisfunction to some extent as well, linking Greenport with the plannedbus routes out of North Haven.)

Schedules are not set in stone and any public transportationhere “will be how it works best for Shelter Island, Ms.Shillingburg said during an interview last week. The purpose of abus on Shelter Island would be to serve the needs of residents,workers and youth. “It’s not a tourist bus, she added. Also,Shelter Islanders would have access to more frequent buses at theNorth Haven and Greenport ferry terminals, buses that connect totrains on the North and South forks.

She noted that the town already has a small bus, for the seniorcitizen programs, that “just doesn’t get used very much.

According to the Volpe report, a new bus would costapproximately $300,000 but Ms. Shillingburg emphasized that “thecost of a bus on Shelter Island is not going to be borne by ShelterIsland.

SYSTEM FEASIBILITY AND COSTS

The 5TRT group points to Cape Cod as a model system. Cape Codebroke away from the Boston transit system in 1976 to form a newdistrict serving all 15 Cape Cod communities using buses on fixedroutes ($2 one way, $6 for a day pass, discounts for seniors), aflexible route ($2 along the route, an extra $2 to stop up to 3/4miles off route) and an on-demand service (minimum of $3 and anadditional 12 cents per mile). The Volpe study also refers to theCape Cod system as an example of how “flex routes can work.

Operating and maintenance costs of the Dual Concept system forthe entire East End are estimated by Volpe at $43.6 million basedon hourly service for 14 to18 hours per day, with half-hourlyservice during morning and afternoon peak periods. Up-front capitalimprovements would cost $117 million to $148 million. Mostinfrastructure expenses would be tied to rail service. A BusFueling Station/Storage/Call Center would need to be built for anestimated $7 million. No mention is made of kiosks or bus stopshelters in the Volpe study but the East End Shuttle website statesthat some “enhanced bus stops will have parking facilities and ashelter with benches, but not are planned for Shelter Island, Ms.Shillingburg said.

PROS AND CONS OF A NEW RTA

In addition to infrastructure and service options, Volpe studiedthe feasibility of establishing a new RTA. “This option has severalpositive aspects because it gives the East End communities greatercontrol over the transit provided to the region, but it also comeswith greater financial and operating risk. According to the Volpestudy, the towns would be responsible for up-front capital andoperations costs of a new transit authority and would bear thefinancial risk associated with the volatile revenue sourcesinvolved. The East End Shuttle plan calls for a commission made upof representatives from the five towns to oversee the system.

Also, the Volpe study indicates that breaking from the MTA couldmean the end of most or all LIRR service to the regionor the needfor the new RTA to purchase or lease the LIRR rights-of-way at somenegotiated value. The overseers of the new RTA would have to decidewhether to operate the transit services in-house using their ownstaff and equipment, or hire a contractor for these services. Ingeneral, contracted services are less costly on a per-vehicle hourbasis, particularly in areas with restrictive union work rules andgenerous public sector pay and benefits, as concluded in the Volpestudy.