June 21, 2006

A (U.S.) Open Suggestion For CR39

The noise of idling engines on the eastbound side and whizzing traffic on the west was punctuated by a sound locals find all too familiar: the metal-on-metal smack of a fender bender. "That's one thousand and one," Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney said dryly.

Gathered at the triangle where Sunrise Highway merges with County Road 39 last Friday morning, a contingent of local lawmakers bore witness to the daily eastbound traffic travail as well as a minor MVA on a section of roadway that's seen 1000 accidents in the last five years, and five fatalities in the last 18 months

Beginning the press conference, Legislator Jay Schneiderman apologized to those present who would soon have to join the eastbound snail's crawl. As he spoke, in the distance to the west a car pulled out and careened along the grass median, coming to a stop in a cloud of dust. It was the folks from News 12. They'd been delayed in traffic, apparently having misjudged how long they'd be sitting in traffic.

The length of time visitors spend

sitting during morning rush might

be cut substantially, if a measure Schneiderman's proposing receives approval from colleagues on the legislature. Last week, he called upon county officials to use the same traffic control techniques employed during the U.S. Open as a way to provide immediate road relief.

During the golf tournament at Shinnecock Hills two years ago, county and town officials used cones and portable electric signs to reconfigure the lane design of the highway, allowing for two, rather than just one, eastbound lanes. Schneiderman has asked for the same to be employed immediately and remain in place for the summer. "It worked then and it could work again," he said. Assemblyman Fred Thiele said reversible lanes have been used in other communities, such as Washington D.C., successfully.

"This is a textbook life and death situation" area resident Michael Abatangelo told The Independent. During the U.S. Open, a traffic signal was temporarily placed at the Shrubland Road intersection. Within two weeks of its removal, two pedestrians were killed in the area, Abatangelo reminded, adding, "In my opinion the county has been negligent in its conduct in addressing this issue."

Beyond the frustration traffic jams cause, Schneiderman noted, "Every shop, every restaurant, every local business is affected by this bottleneck." The time workers spend idling, not only contributes to air pollution, but the delay and wasted hours drives up the cost of goods and services for everyone who lives here.

And not everyone stuck in traffic lives here. Legislator Ed Romaine, who came from the North Fork to support his colleague, pointed out that many travelers aren't only South Fork residents. "Look at the numbers on the sides of the trucks," he said, taking notice of upIsland companies. "Those are residents from the 1st, the 6th and the 7th legislative districts," he said.

Speaking of cost, Schneiderman claimed the concept would have a minimal impact on the county budget. The money is within the Department of Public Works budget, he said, pointing out that the county executive could have called for the same strategy. "It doesn't matter to me who does it, as long as this problem is solved," the South Forker said.

If the idea gets the green light, the extra eastbound lane would run from the merge to North Sea Road. "With creativity and political will this traffic can flow," Heaney offered.

The furor over County Road 39 improvements began a year ago when County Executive Steve Levy debuted a capital budget plan that locals thought postponed major renovations to a highway some call "Paseo de Muerte" (That's "road of death" in Spanish). Levy has argued that Suffolk can't afford to bear the burden of a $70 million overhaul.

It doesn't have to. The federal government typically covers 80% of major highway projects; meaning Suffolk's share would be $14 million. However, Levy has balked at earmarking the money awaiting a financial commitment from the feds. Still, just last month, he listed CR39 as one of the top two priority projects in the county. He did not return calls for comment on Schneiderman's idea in a timely fashion. It was slated for discussion before the legislature's public works committee as The Independent went to press yesterday.

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