Tipping Point

At some point in the last few years the traffic on South Fork roads passed a critical point: Nightmare drives are no longer just in summer; they can occur almost any time of year.

Consider Monday of this week, when a utility pole down across Route 114 in Sag Harbor near Lincoln Street stopped travel in both directions. This had an immediate effect on morning travel times, as drivers backtracked and then had to find alternate routes. Montauk Highway eastbound was far worse than normal; back roads were packed — all this on a Monday in November.

Taking a look at the a.m. tie-up on Monday, it was, as usual, mostly the so-called trade parade — vans, trucks, and delivery vehicles — heading for East Hampton Village and points beyond to provide materials and services for a resort and weekend home community that are no longer able to be provided by nearby businesses. It is an odd reality that fresh baked goods now come from bakeries in Queens, labor from mid-Island, and schoolteachers from farther than that.

The difficulty in getting to the South Fork hurts most businesses by limiting the pool of potential employees, especially as real estate speculation has mopped up so many of the once-affordable places to live. Better work force housing should be a critical long-term objective for the South Fork towns and incorporated villages, but leverage must also be applied to transportation.

A new local rail shuttle, to begin service in February, is a start and may serve white-collar workers and those in health and retail. It will have only a negligible impact on the twice-daily construction and services flow, none on trucking. Implicit in the shuttle concept is that buses or other means must be found to carry passengers the “last mile” to their homes and workplaces, thanks to the decentralized nature of workplaces here, as well as residential areas.

A road system that recognizes that current traffic conditions are going to persist is essential. Everything must be looked at, including replacing the Water Mill and Wainscott stoplights with blinking lights, at least during morning and afternoon hours. Studying whether the high-tension electric lines north of Montauk Highway could provide a backbone for a new service route must take place. And, as has been suggested before, using some of the Long Island Rail Road right of way for vehicles might be reconsidered. Overnight parking for work trucks near the shuttle stations would help, though few would be in neighborhoods where they would be welcome.

Bike paths, trains, and walking are all terrific notions, but getting the tradespeople in loaded vans to job sites will for the foreseeable future require the roads. And, as houses get ever bigger and more technically complicated, the trade parade is only going to get bigger. Answers will require a lot more than roadside beautification or litter patrols. The sooner we get going the better.