Recent developments in public transportation in Suffolk County, particularly on the East End, are incredible and disturbing. The problems grow deeper for Suffolk County and only a few elected officials are working to address the inequities, with most continuing to kick the transit can down the road – the preferred policy for decades.
Those of us who ride the LIRR and Suffolk County Transit buses know that we are experiencing an outdated, inefficient and unfair public transit system, which limits the mobility of thousands and is harmful to our economy and quality of life.
Despite paying millions of dollars in taxes and surcharges to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Suffolk County receives absolutely no subsidy for its public bus system. Nassau County has been receiving substantial assistance from the MTA for years. What makes Nassau more deserving of MTA support?
Well, for one, Suffolk County has been ineffective at pursuing its transit interests in Albany. Also, it failed to modernize its public bus system and continues to operate a state of the art system for say, 1970. Most recently, the MTA instituted its “payroll tax” and then proceeded to eliminate service including winter weekend rail service between Ronkonkoma and Greenport. We get less and pay more!
To add insult to injury, a for Sunday bus service was approved by the legislature in December but. Given that the fares have not been increased for decades and there is little, if any, chance of obtaining financial assistance from Washington or Albany in the current economic environment, Legislator Jay Schneiderman proposed a 50-cent fare increase on all lines to provide the cash needed to start the expansion. The effort failed, as the Legislature was unable to pass a veto override.
I spoke with the legislators who did not support the fare increase for service bill due to its apparent uneven application. Yes, there would have been some riders paying more for service without the benefit of Sunday operations. So, now we continue paying the same fare and no one has Sunday service. Try telling a prospective employer at a retail center or hospital that you can’t work on Sundays and holidays and see if you get the job! The failure of this legislative effort has many negative economic impacts and impacts many businesses’ access to labor.
On the East End, the impact of this failure is more pronounced than anywhere else in the county. The Peconic Bay region is dependent on agriculture, services and its second-home economy. The high cost of housing on the twin forks results in a labor force that is distant to the jobs they seek. Also, the rural character of the region creates large distances between destinations. Persons with limited mobility are forced to stay at home on Sundays and holidays – or buy a bicycle. No trips to the beach, the library or to the stores despite paying all the taxes for such service.
So what can we do as a region? Can we go it alone? Can a fare increase of 50 cents pay for a public bus system on the East End that is operated 365 days per year? Yes! But once again, the East End gets the short end of the county service stick. We are already sending much surplus transit money to the MTA and to Suffolk County to subsidize west end service.
The East End needs to have a coordinated rail and bus network that is designed to meet the needs of our rural, specialized communities. As a member of 5 Town Rural Transit, Inc., a not-for-profit transit advocacy organization, I have watched for years as the county and the MTA ignored most of our sound recommendations. The county has ignored the recommendations of a nationally recognized transit planning agency (Volpe Center). It also ignored its own 2009 Comprehensive Bus Route study (Urbitran Associates) that supports Sunday service.
It is time for our county government to get out of the way and let the East End design and implement its own transit service. We’ll pay our own way and go after the subsidies that should be ours. There is currently state legislation to permit the East End to do just that but there are also steps that are just short of divorce that can go a long way toward solving our public transportation needs. I can only hope that our East End elected officials can overcome the indifference of Suffolk County.