March 29, 2006

No Room On The Bus

It is only 6:25 on a cold, windy morning in Riverhead, and already, the S92 county bus, which begins its route in Greenport and ends in East Hampton, is filled to capacity.

Scores of Latino workers have woken in the wee hours and headed to stops along the Riverhead route, hoping to make it early enough to secure a spot on the bus. It's a real fear — on any given day, bus drivers are forced to leave dozens of workers behind, closing the doors and leaving them to face the prospect of waiting a half hour for another bus. Odds are, they'll be late for work, and maybe even miss a day's pay.

"How many times can you wait for a bus that never comes?" asked Vince Taldone, board member of the 5 Towns Rural Transit Group Inc., a group that has proposed a new coordinated rail and bus network featuring inter-hamlet shuttles. "How many times do you miss work before you get fired?"

Fear of unemployment is etched onto the faces of workers left behind each morning. Desperation looms large, and as the bus crowds up, it's each man for himself.

"They stampede the bus," said Helen Los, a Riverhead resident who travels to work in Southampton on the S92. "They'll bang on the sides of the buses."

Taldone agreed. "They're in competition to survive."

Taldone understands the frustration all too well. With no peripheral vision, he is unable to drive and is fully dependent on public transportation to travel on the East End.

Los, also disabled and unable to drive, said with no buses stopping near her home in the Riverhead Landing complex behind Home Depot, she is forced to pay for a $6 cab ride to and from the Edwards Avenue bus stop each day.

"It's costing me roughly $72 a week to go back and forth to work," she said. And, on days when the crowd of waiting riders is too large, she's forced to head east to the bus stop in Aquebogue — a $7 trip. "I can't do that all the time," she said. "I'm not working to pay a taxi."

But for many workers, there are no options. "Drivers are passing by residents in Riverside and Flanders, the least affluent areas in the Hamptons. These are the people least likely to call a cab," said Taldone.

The ride home is even grimmer. "Workers are sleeping in the woods because they missed the last bus," said Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley.

There are ways to ease the woes, such as an earlier bus, suggested Taldone; more buses during early morning and after-work hours, and also an adjustment of the schedule to accommodate peak season ridership. "It all comes down to our elected officials," he said.

Epley has discussed the issue with Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who is working to address the issue.

Schneiderman, chairman of the public works and transportation committee, emphasized the need for service on Sundays. The legislator said a request for proposals has already been issued to study the county bus system and ascertain where ridership warrants additional buses and routes.

But, he pointed out, "whenever you add buses, you're going to lose more money." A Sunday route will most likely not pay for itself, and additional subsidy will be necessary.

Schneiderman has been considering a new alternative — a van that could get closer to where people live. The concept so far includes an idea "halfway between a bus and a taxi," that would be operated through a central dispatch system.

Mark Smith, deputy director of communications for Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's office, is aware of the problems: "Suffolk County Transit does concede that if there are more people than seats, they have to leave them behind. They can't stuff them in."

"We're going to be looking at this over the next couple of weeks," said Smith. "It is both a logistical and budgetary issue that we're going to have to try and tackle."

And to add tension to a simmering kettle of discontent, there have been reports of racism against Latinos.

"I have heard upsetting stories of bad treatment of Hispanic immigrants using the county bus system, some of which are alleged bias incidents," said Greenport Mayor David Kapell. "This is a situation which, if true, should be addressed immediately by the contractors who provide the bus services and Suffolk County that finances them. Immigrants and natives alike should be able to take a bias-free environment for granted when it comes to use and provision of public facilities and services.

Taldone and Los both attest to the bias incidents. "The perception of how people are treated changes depending on who you are," said Taldone. "There is a perception that these people (Latinos) have no standing in the community. There is no humanity — people will snap at them, close the doors in their faces."

Smith said that while the transportation department believes that "the increase in riders seems to be related to day laborers, traveling from the North Fork to the South Fork," he has not heard of any incidents of prejudice or "tensions along those lines."

As the weather grows warmer, it's clear that the buses will grow even more crowded, and there are no easy answers.

While Schneiderman hopes for additional service, "it's unlikely we're going to see another bus this summer, because things move so slowly."

He hopes it will happen by next summer, "but [we] have to get the wheels in motion."

Not good news for scores of workers. "It's really hard," said Los. "I feel sorry for the people left behind."

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