May 10, 2006
Hearings Reveal Public Discontent
They came with braces on their arms and legs and canes gripped tightly in their hands. Others were guided by caretakers and friends. And many traveled for miles to attend, some waking in the wee hours of the morning to wait for Godot-like buses that might never arrive at all.
But they all arrived with a purpose: to express their concerns over Suffolk County's public bus transportation system.
One by one, elderly and handicapped residents struggled to the podium to voice their discontent with a transportation system that has been widely criticized. Seniors described having to transfer four times and wait for interminable hours in the cold and rain just to visit loved ones. The severely handicapped detailed having to walk for miles just to reach a bus stop. Others, who rely on Suffolk County Accessible Transportation, a program designed to offer those with disabilities curb-to-curb transportation, recounted being dropped off by bus drivers across crowded parking lots and being forced to make their way haltingly, and with braces, toward work places.
The hearings, held by the Suffolk Legislature's Transportation Advisory Board in conjunction with the Suffolk Coalition of Mental Health Services Providers, took place simultaneously in Riverhead and Smithtown last Friday.
Topics discussed included bus stop locations, suggested locations for bus shelters and benches, changes in time schedules for specific routes, transfer points, and in some cases, the dire need for bus service in areas where there is none.
Michelle Gamble, case manager for the criminal justice program at the Town of Southampton's Department of Human Services, lives in Westhampton but leaves her car in Hampton Bays every day, where she boards the S92 bus that runs from Orient to East Hampton, to continue her commute. Taking the bus, she said, saves on rising fuel costs and also allows time to catch up with clients who are regular riders of public transportation. Riding the bus also gives Gamble a view of what her clients are forced to endure when trying to get to appointments at county offices in Hauppauge.
Gamble spoke at the Riverhead hearing about the desperate struggles she has witnessed. Last week she saw dozens of riders left at the curb. "It's survival of the fittest," she said, with only the "youngest and strongest, who are able to fight their way to the front, able to board."
Also discussed were overcrowding and increased rush hour bus service, as well as the need for Sunday service and night service.
Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who is the chairman of the public works and transportation committee, has been a strong advocate for a county bus service on Sundays.
In a recent article published by The Independent, Schneiderman said a request for proposals has already been issued to study the county bus system and ascertain where ridership warrants additional buses and routes.
The need for additional night service in areas such as Southampton is vital, said Gamble, who was shocked to learn that some employees who work later hours miss the last bus and are forced to sleep in the woods. "Our community should be so embarrassed by that," she said.
A huge segment of the bus ridership, immigrants and the Latino population, were not present at the hearings, acknowledged Schneiderman. That was most likely because the individuals either had to work or were afraid to come forward to the county center with their concerns, said Vince Taldone, a former chairman of the Suffolk County Transportation Advisory Board. He is also a member of the board of directors of 5Town Rural Transit, Inc., a not-for-profit organization advocating for a coordinated rail-and-bus network designed to serve the needs of the Peconic Bay community.
Taldone, a Riverhead resident, cannot drive due to limited vision and relies on public bus service. "Suffolk County boasts that it has one of the lowest cost per mile systems in the county," said Taldone. "It certainly shows. One of the wealthiest counties in America has what I could only describe as a Third World public transit system."
Taldone said that most of the 60 new buses that Congressman Tim Bishop helped to secure recently serve residents in western areas of the county, such as Babylon and Islip.
Other concerns were raised by Southampton Village Trustee Paul Robinson, who brought up issues of noise as they pass through residential areas of the village. He suggested rerouting the line. Robinson also asked that the county pay for a bus shelter.
Schneiderman, however, questioned Robinson's request, asking why one of the wealthiest villages in the country would need county assistance.
Also present on the Riverhead panel were Scott Carlin, a member of the Suffolk County Transit Advisory Board and Tom Neely, chairman of the East End Transit Council.
Neely, who has worked on the Sustainable East End Development Strategy, outlined key ideas of the initiative, including the concept that improved transportation is linked to land use. "You have to approach this in a holistic manner," he said, "with density located in hamlet centers that would support public transportation."
The goal, he said, is to have each of the East End town and village boards sign a memorandum of understanding agreeing to land use as a way to solve transportation issues.
"Public transportation is clearly something we need to improve," said Neely. "We need some creative thinking."
Schneiderman said that the obstacle is funding additional service. Bus riders, however, said they would be willing to face a small fare hike for better service. "I wouldn't mind," said one resident, who is forced to rely on expensive taxi service. "I paid $18 just to go shopping the other day."
Louise Stalzer, director of Peconic Connections and former director of the Peconic Community Council, said transportation is an "overwhelming" problem for many and is one that can only be solved "by all levels of government coming together to do their part." The issue affects everyone across the board, she said.