New Rival For Jitney?

Stephen J. Kotz | July 17, 1997

Passengers who travel between Manhattan and the East End on the Hampton Jitney have had to shell out a little extra money this summer in the form of higher fares. And they have not had a lower-priced alternative, as in past years.

Since Hamptons On My Mind, notable for its hot pink coaches, discontinued service last November, the Jitney has had no competition. But that may change soon.

Marty Laschever, the owner of the Winston Coach Company of Medford, which operated the Hamptons On My Mind buses, said he would resume East End-New York service under the Winston name as early as September. The company also provides airport shuttles and tour services.

No Longer No-Frills

"That will give us the whole winter to get our act together," said Mr. Laschever, who added he would have preferred to have his buses back on the road in time for the peak summer season. That timetable proved untenable, however, when flooding in North Dakota earlier this year forced the closing of the Motor Coach Inc. factory, where Winston had placed orders for five new buses.

"The plant never got flooded, but the people who lived in the surrounding communities did," said Mr. Laschever. "The National Guard came in and closed the plant. It set us back, but what am I going to do? I can't cry about it."

When the company returns, its no-frills service and $15 one-way fares will be a thing of the past, Mr. Laschever said. The new buses, which will seat 57 passengers, will be staffed by attendants, like the Jitney. Fares will also be higher, although Mr. Laschever said he did not know by how much.

More Subdued Look

"People in the Hamptons want to pay more," he said jokingly. "It makes them feel important."

Gone too will be the company's gaily painted - or garishly painted, depending on one's point of view - buses. The Winston coaches will be painted white with red, orange, and brown lettering, according to Mr. Laschever.

"We got a lot of complaints in East Hampton," Mr. Laschever said. "One guy called me up and told me he had moved there for the serenity and calmness, and we were killing the look of East Hampton."

Last year, the company held a contest to design a new look for its coaches, but most entrants "thought I was trying to make them louder," forcing the company to shelve the idea, he said.

Increased Costs

As the various competitors come and go, the Jitney marches on. Last month, the Jitney raised the price of one-way tickets to $22 and round-trips to $40 for travel between the South Fork and Manhattan. Ticket prices had been $20 one way and $36 round-trip.

Tom Neely, the Jitney's vice president and marketing director, said the lack of competition played no part in the decision to raise its fares.

"We had to catch up with the increase in costs," he said. The Jitney had charged the same price since 1990. Mr. Neely cited the expense of new buses and wage increases as reasons for the price hike.

Frequent riders can receive a discount by purchasing a value book of 12 tickets at $17 apiece.

"Hamptons On My Mind and Hampton Express have proven it is impossible to charge $15 or $18 or whatever they were charging and stay in business," Mr. Neely added. Hampton Express was an earlier competitor to the Jitney that ceased operation a few years ago.

Changes In The Works

The Jitney also has possible changes in the works. Mr. Neely said the company has been negotiating with Southampton Town and Suffolk County to lease space at Frances Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, first as a bus stop and later as a possible "satellite" for some of its office staff and a bus barn.

"It's just an idea at this point," he said. "We're talking about five or 10 years down the road."

Although the Jitney recently renovated its headquarters at the Omni on County Road 39 in Southampton, it is already outgrowing the space, Mr. Neely said.

Mr. Neely said the Jitney is not concerned about the return of competition. "When they came in, we didn't change the way we operated. When they left, we didn't change the way we operated, and if they come back, we won't change the way we operate," he said.