Statement from Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. on South Fork Commuter Connection

September 3, 2019

On March 4, 2019, during one of last winter’s few snowstorms, the 6:16 am train pulled out of the LIRR station in Speonk headed eastward on the maiden voyage of the South Fork Commuter Connection (SFCC). After more than 20 years of advocacy from local government officials, commuters, environmentalists, and public transit advocates, the South Fork finally had its first major improvement in public transit in decades with the advent of a long overdue multi-modal commuter service as an alternative to the “Trade Parade” on County Road 39.

The SFCC provided commuters with 2 new “morning rush” eastbound trains and 2 new “afternoon rush” westbound trains. Shuttle bus service or “last mile” transportation to employment destinations in the morning and back to the train station in the afternoon was included as part of the service to facilitate the commute. The fare for the train and the bus was $4.25 each way. The train only fare was $3.25.

We now have ridership numbers available for the first five months of the new train service from March to July. These results demonstrate success well beyond our expectations.

In 2017 and 2018, before the start of the SFCC, ridership numbers for the LIRR on the South Fork from March to July were 10,845 and 10,943, respectively. In 2019, with the addition of the SFCC, ridership has spiked to 24,974, a 128.2% increase in ridership.

According to the LIRR, 72% of the increase in ridership is attributable to the weekday trains.

This is a great beginning for the South Fork’s fledgling public transportation initiative. People who are using the train love the service. Consequently, the trend for ridership continues upwards as word of mouth spreads.

One modification has been made to the service beginning September 3, 2019. The final afternoon train will terminate at Westhampton, rather than Hampton Bays, to give more commuters the opportunity to pick up the train west of Hampton Bays.

I will be suggesting a second modification for the service as we move forward. While train ridership has exceeded expectations, bus ridership for the last mile is lower than it was 10 years ago throughout the SFCC pilot project during the reconstruction of County Road 39. Then, the bus was free.

Based on this experience, I am proposing to the Towns that the $1.00 surcharge for the bus be eliminated to further incentivize ridership. The state funding for the bus service covers the cost to the Towns. The loss of revenue to the Towns is inconsequential. Instead, one fare for all train riders of $3.25 will further increase overall ridership, including the use of the buses.

The only complaint that I get about the SFCC service is that there is not enough of it. People want more frequent and convenient service. Unfortunately, because there is only one track, we are now limited in how many trains can be provided.

Capital improvements are necessary to create “sidings” at strategic locations along the line so that trains can pass each other and provide much more frequent service in the future.

I am happy to report that as part of the 2019 State Budget, these capital improvements have been included in the 5-year capital plan for the LIRR. Once these capital improvements have been designed and constructed, the demand for more service can be satisfied.

I want to express my thanks to the LIRR, the Town of Southampton, and the Town of East Hampton for all their good work in bringing this new service to fruition and giving it such a great start. I am confident that this is the first step in a successful journey that will provide even greater public transit options for the East End in the future, benefitting the economy, the environment and every resident of eastern Long Island.