For several years, morning and afternoon trains shuttling from Speonk to Montauk have been familiar sights. These were intended as a way to reduce traffic congestion on portions of Montauk and Sunrise Highways, as well as on County Road 39 in Southampton. Beginning in 2019, the so-named South Fork Commuter Connection was supposed to take a bite out of the weekday morning and afternoon “trade parade” of bumper-to-bumper work vans and delivery trucks. While the South Fork trains have helped, for most drivers the positive effect has been negligible. Now, budget woes at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority could threaten the service before it really takes off.
According to M.T.A. officials, the agency as a whole will face a $3 billion deficit in 2025. Growing pension costs and lagging ridership system-wide is to blame, they say. The M.T.A. will need additional federal, state, and local funding to maintain service levels. Without the aid — and perhaps even with it — the agency will have to consider more fare hikes, service reductions, and cutting its work force, which would impact service and even possibly decrease ridership further. Because fares remained mostly the same during the pandemic, commuters need to brace for steep increases.
How tough things became for the agency during the pandemic is well illustrated on the Long Island Rail Road. Before Covid-19, the L.I.R.R. had reached its highest ridership ever, a total of 91 million trips in 2019. The figure plummeted to 30 million in 2020, a 67-percent collapse. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office has said that even in the most rosy scenario, ridership will creep up slowly now, reaching 78 million in 2025, still about 14 percent lower than at its peak. Stay-home work and more online shopping are partially responsible.
Vehicle traffic is another story; the state says that a record 330 million-plus bridge and tunnel crossings were set last year. Clearly, plenty of people are still going places and most of them by car.
The South Fork Commuter Connection depends on trains connecting to shuttle buses to move riders to and from commercial centers and workplaces — generally. The service does not operate on weekends and is suspended on Fridays from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, to accommodate more remunerative summertime travel. This spotty schedule seems a steep hurdle to increasing ridership and taking more vehicles off South Fork roads.
As crazy as it sounds, hope is still dim for Friday service. In April, the L.I.R.R. rebuffed a plea from elected officials, transportation advocates, and school and hospital administrators to provide even a single eastbound summer Friday train. The advocates, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. among them, have also pushed, so far unsuccessfully, for track changes that would keep the shuttle trains from interfering with the L.I.R.R.’s longer-trip schedules. The money for track improvements was supposed to come from $350 million in new state funding but was spent on different priorities by the strapped agency.
With the M.T.A. staring down the massive deficit, additional threats to the South Fork service could be contemplated. Local governments here need to speak loudly to ensure that the service continues to grow. And individual riders might want to get in touch with federal and state representatives, making the case that train travel must remain a key part of eastern Long Island’s transportation future. Loud voices will be needed to protect and increase this important alternative.