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North Fork traffic: What can we do about it? TIMES REVIEW TALKS PANEL DISCUSSES THE ISSUE

BY TIM GANNON

The traffic season on the North Fork used to end around Labor Day, when summer residents and tourists went home.

But now, they are staying longer, and the traffic congestion is extending further into fall.

Traffic problems on the North Fork were the topic at last Wednesday’s Times Review Talks at The Vineyards at Aquebogue. A panel featuring town supervisors Scott Russell of Southold and Laura Jens-Smith of Riverhead, county Legislator Al Krupski, Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo, Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley and Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller discussed a variety of ongoing transportation issues.

The Harbes Orchard

Sound Avenue

The Harbes family owns several popular attractions that have traditionally led to autumn traffic congestion in both Riverhead and Southold. Both police chiefs said they have been proactive in helping to alleviate those problems.

“We are the choke point for the East End,” Chief Hegermiller said. “Harbes Farm on Sound Avenue seems to draw a lot of people and cause a lot of traffic.”

Since Sound Avenue is a two-lane road, he said, anytime someone stops to make a left turn, “there’s no way to get around them on the right.”

But the Harbes family has done their part, Chief Hegermiller said.

They’ve hired a traffic engineer for the past two seasons and doubled their lot size with a new seven-acre acquisition, creating just one exit and entrance on that lot.

In addition, the chief said, they’ve made it easier to pull into their properties without backing up traffic, and they’ve covered the cost of police officers who are needed to direct traffic at their Sound Avenue sites in Riverhead.

The crowd for this month's event. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Riverhead police allocated one sergeant and nine officers — mostly traffic control officers and crossing guards rather than police officers, Chief Hegermiller said.

“They are not depleting our police staff,” he said.

At Harbes location on Sound Avenue in Southold Town, “we try to use traffic control officers but there are times when we cannot get them working on weekends,” Chief Flatley said.

The town used two highway patrol officers and officers from the Community Response Unit instead, he said.

“The TCOs usually finish around Labor Day, but now we keep them longer into the season,” the chief said.

The Harbes family reimburses the town for the cost, Chief Flatley said.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell

ELECTED OFFICIALS WEIGH IN

Ms. Jens-Smith said the types of businesses the town encounters changes every year, and the town works with its farmland and agricultural advisory committee so that when someone proposes a new farm stand, they try to work with them so that they are not impeding traffic coming onto or off Sound Avenue.

Mr. Russell said Southold Town has two major “choking points”: the Harbes location in Mattituck and the popular Lavender by the Bay farm in East Marion.

But he said the latter is probably worse in terms of traffic, because Main Road in East Marion has no [connecting] side roads, like Harbes’ does. On the other hand, he said, lavender farm traffic is only at its peak for about three weeks, whereas the Harbes farm congestion lasts about six or seven weeks.

“Parking is critical,” said Mr. Krupski, who is also a farmer. Businesses that open a new farm stand without providing adequate parking are exacerbating the problem, he said.

Mr. Krupski said drivers on Sound Avenue often try to take a shortcut by going up Penny’s Road just east of Northville Turnpike, only to discover it’s no shortcut.

Mr. Palumbo said he’s lived on the North Fork for about 20 years, since about the same time traffic issues started emerging.

“We’ve been discovered and it’s not going anywhere,” he said.

Visitors exit the LIRR in Mattituck. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

Officials would like to encourage people to use public transportation. But that also involves getting the Long Island Rail Road and Suffolk County Transit to cooperate.

Mr. Palumbo said the LIRR has been using the South Fork as a pilot for increasing train schedules.

He believes the North Fork can benefit from this in about 15 to 20 years.

“All we need now is for the ridership to increase,” he said.

After that, the next step would be coordinating bus routes with train schedules to get people from the trains to their homes, he said.

Uber and Lyft also can help with that so-called “last mile,” he said.

When asked if it was possible to provide the LIRR with more incentive to adjust service levels, Mr. Palumbo said he state already subsidizes the LIRR to the tune of $26 million annually.

Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo

Mr. Krupski said another problem is that people don’t want to give up their cars.

LIRR ridership was down last year, and it loses about $70 million per year, he said.

“They are heavily subsidized,” he said.

Mr. Russell said the 2009 Volpe Study envisioned the LIRR turning over its East End tracks and infrastructure, as well as all the revenue generated, to a new East End transportation authority.

But the MTA did not want to give up those things, he said.

“It was a non-starter,” the supervisor said.

Ms. Jens-Smith said it’s a matter of changing behavior.

“A lot of millennials are not driving cars and are willing to take public transportation,” she said. “Plus, Riverhead has an aging population. They need to figure out how to get places without driving.”

Ms. Jens-Smith said Uber and Lyft have been very convenient for residents.

Riverhead also recently authorized a bike-sharing program in the downtown area and at the Enterprise Park at Calverton, she said.