Former MTA chairman E. Virgil Conway, who led the largest public transportation agency in the nation from 1995 to 2001, died Wednesday in Southampton, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said Friday.

The native Long Islander, who was instrumental in getting the MTA's ambitious East Side Access project off the ground, was 85.

Conway was born and grew up on Long Island's East End, graduating from East Hampton High School and later receiving degrees from Colgate University and Yale Law School. He also served in the Air Force during the Korean War, the family said.

He joined the MTA after working as an attorney and banker, including as deputy superintendent of the state Banking Department under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and later as chairman and chief executive of Seamen's Bank for Savings.

Conway was serving as the Westchester representative on the MTA board when Gov. George Pataki tapped him to become the authority's seventh chairman 20 years ago, the agency said.

In that role, Conway oversaw the rollout of the MetroCard, which remains the MTA's primary fare payment system.

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Conway also successfully pushed for the MTA's most ambitious infrastructure spending plan until that time -- a $17 billion capital program that included $1 billion to launch the Second Avenue Subway line and $1.5 billion for East Side Access, the MTA's ongoing "megaproject" to link the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, the agency said.

Ridership through the MTA climbed to its highest level in 30 years under Conway's watch.

"Virgil was a hugely influential and effective chairman, and many of the successes and accomplishments the MTA celebrates today are the result of his hard work and his heartfelt service to the region," MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said. "He will be sorely missed."

Conway also served on the boards of the state Thruway Authority and Canal Corporation.

"His passion for improving the lives of others contributed immeasurably to the city of New York and the Empire State," said Thruway Authority executive director Robert Megna.

Conway was the valedictorian of East Hampton High and an Eagle Scout, and became a captain in the Air Force, according to his daughter, Allison Worthington of Quogue.

She said her father was very involved with the Montauk Lighthouse, and the visitors center there is named after him and his wife.

"What he was most proud of was his 50 years of public service," Worthington said.

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Survivors include his wife of 46 years, Elaine, of Bronxville; and another daughter, Sarah Conway of Montauk. A memorial service will be held Thursday at 4 p.m. at Reformed Church of Bronxville.