The invitation promised “Innovative Solutions to the South Fork Traffic Mess.” What we got was something akin to a pickleball game — lots of noise, scant exercise for the participants, and even less for the spectators. A newspaper editor (from another newspaper) introduced six officials who, one by one, vented their frustrations, outlined what they could not do, and touted what they did do.
Had their successes been all that successful, one has to conclude, we wouldn’t be having lunch at the Union Burger Bar agreeing on two basic truths: The traffic mess is worse than ever, and it’s driving everyone nuts.
The SoFo Traffic Mess costs time and money and systolic repose. Schedules are rerouted or scrapped. Appointments are pushed back or canceled. Retailers are clock-blocked. Patience is tested. Patience fails. Schools are losing teachers; hospitals, nurses. Sleep patterns and work habits are adjusted to avoid logjams, especially in Water Mill and on County Road 39. Accidents take five hours to unclog. We all pray that no loved one is in an ambulance or burning building on some afternoon in August.
In short, the citizenry has been thrown under the bus (despite a shortage of buses).
Billed as a freewheeling exchange of ideas, the luncheon demonstrates why the bottlenecks continue: Each representative sees the SoFo Traffic Mess through his or her limited lens or authority. When the police chief says 20 more cops would definitely help, the town super states there will be no new taxes. When the highway super says we need more lanes, the town engineer says more lanes would only attract more traffic. Overnight parking for the trade brigade would eliminate their twice-daily commute to and from Moriches, but land is too precious and security guards too expensive. Limiting left-hand turns would be advantageous, but the business community opposes the restriction. Emergencies would be aided by new shoulders, but no one can abide the necessary construction.
Every reasonable proposal is parried with reasonable pushback — whether it’s roundabouts or affordable housing or modest tolls or private roads or weighing trucks or better signs, sidewalks, or surveys.
The SoFo Traffic Mess is a genuine mess. With no simple solution. There may be no solution at all. Officials tend to point fingers and throw up their hands. Short shrift is given to public transportation as an answer. No one says (or sings) everything’s up to date in Kansas City — they’ve gone for free buses. Free! Zero expenditures for passes or fare boxes or accounting or driver protection. Use of public transit has soared; use of cars, diminished. Boston, Denver, and D.C. are about to get on board. (Read the CNBC report here.)
There are no bus riders on this panel, no tradespeople, no pool cleaners or farmers or landscapers or caterers or cooks. Just six bureaucrats. The gulf between the elected and the electorate deepens as the SoFo Traffic Mess compounds. Even back roads are congested.
Which is not to say that town and county functionaries have not worked hard and taken baby steps. Some red lights are longer or shorter when appropriate. Speed bumps abound. Stop signs sprout like weeds. “Cops and cones” cleaned up this end of Sunrise Highway for a spell. And about a year ago, there was an experiment on County Road 39 with continuous blinking yellow lights during rush hours. Did it work? No one knows. The experiment lasted one week, hardly enough time for motorists to understand if they should slow down or speed up or progress with caution. File it under T.B.D. (Traffic Be Delayed?)
When the paying guests are finally included in the conversation, one gentleman suggests a toll booth at the Shinnecock Canal bridge. The idea is dismissed out of hand. “Two dollars will not deter anyone from their high-paying jobs,” says one county official. (In fact, in 2007, in Stockholm, Sweden, motorists were charged two euros to enter the main artery at rush hour. After an instantaneous and predictable protest, traffic was reduced by 20 percent, and subsequent surveys show 75 percent of motorists approve of the toll — which also provides funds for additional traffic upgrades.)
Another citizen wants cameras to catch the speeders racing through East Hampton on their way to Montauk. Cameras cost money, says the police chief, and require maintenance, and tickets must be sent, court dates arranged, disputes adjudicated.
“No kidding,” whispers the collective unconscious. Protecting the public costs money. Saving lives has a price. Did officials think otherwise? Over and over, the reason for inaction is “insufficient funds” or “lack of resources” or “diversion of allocations.” You would’ve thought these folks would’ve heard that there are no free lunches. (This one, for example, costs $40 per person, with no burgers on the Union Burger Bar menu.)
If there’s no money, there’s no fix. If there’s no willingness to raise and spend money, there’s no real search for a fix. It remains a mystery why one of the wealthiest communities in one of the wealthiest nations in the world cannot find the funds or inspiration for better roads and better business and better schools and a better life. Perhaps the powers-that-be ought to substitute all the fancy financial euphemisms with another word: investment.
“Historically, the most successful economic growth strategy has revolved around investment. It was true in ancient Rome, with its roads and aqueducts, and in 19th-century Britain, with its railroads. During the 20th century, it was true in the United States as well as Japan and Europe.” — David Leonhardt, New York Times Magazine
In the closing minutes, a gentleman from Southampton suggests elevating the L.I.R.R. train tracks, replacing the polluting diesel cars with electric trains, and utilizing the land below for a new road. The clearing has already been done and very few houses would be inconvenienced or moved. The investment would cost many millions and take several years, but had this wild idea been put into action in 2019, let’s say, we might not be sitting here today trying to find innovative solutions for the SoFo Traffic Mess.
Sitting in traffic, after lunch, a final thought: Why not find a sage and impartial person, detached from any branch of government, unbound by parochialism or chauvinism or budget-phobia, and let him or her do the research to come up with a solution? Yes, it requires money. Yes, it will take time. But there must be a retired C.E.O. or former chess champion or Silicon Valley émigré with no vote to win, no bone to pick, and no résumé to pad who can unentangle the crazy crisscross of contradictions that have jammed up the roads and stalled our pursuit of happiness.
Wanted: One Car Czar.
Bruce Buschel is writer who lives in Bridgehampton.