Some opponents of a proposal to cut a one-car train between Ronkonkoma and Greenport who packed a public hearing Monday night said the plan would doom the North Fork to economic stagnation and signal the abandonment of a major part of the Long Island Rail Road service area.
People living in communities across Brookhaven Town also came to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority hearing at the Riverhead County Center, to tell how they too would no longer be able to take the train to jobs or homes in Yaphank or Medford, and to suggest new stations should open to serve growing population centers in Manorville and the Moriches.
Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko added his voice by having an aide read a letter to the MTA board. He said that, with elected officials in the five East End towns talking about pulling away from the MTA and forming their own Peconic Community Transportation Council, he was "intrigued" with the idea of joining them.
More than 200 people - many of them elected officials or representatives of labor or community groups - came out to the hearing over the proposed service cuts, which have been suggested by the MTA to deal with its feared shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Much discussion was on the plan to end all regular Ronkonkoma-to-Greenport service, which many said would be a crippling blow to the area's economic development. Fewer than 60,000 people live year-round in Riverhead and Southold, and only about 2,200 more could take the train from Shelter Island.
The LIRR says it loses nearly $1 million a year on the line, which serves fewer than two dozen people a day. The railroad says the average train passenger pays 44 percent of the cost of their ride with their ticket, but riders on the North Fork train pay only about 12 percent of its operating cost.
But the line, which many say has a schedule that makes it nearly unusable for people who want to commute to work and back - and impossible for lawyers and jurors to take to the Riverhead courts - has become a powerful symbol in the protest over the MTA's lack of service to the East End.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, who with other local officials met privately with MTA representatives on Friday in Riverhead Town Hall, said Monday that what is really needed is not a minor improvement in service, but restructuring of the MTA, or having the East End break away and form its own Peconic transportation authority.
"Their business model doesn't work any longer," Walter said. "In the '60s and '70s, everyone commuted to the city. That doesn't happen any longer. You should be able to take a train to Hauppauge, or to the courts in Riverhead."
Suffolk Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said it is unlikely the MTA hearings would change the actions of the agency. "They have their hearings, and they do what they want," he said.But Romaine, who also wants to replace the MTA with a local transportation authority, said the unfairness of the agency is becoming more clear to East Enders. "They run the city buses, they subsidize the Nassau buses, and they give us nothing. . . . They increase our payroll taxes, but they won't put tolls on the East River bridges that only 2 percent of our drivers use," he said.
MTA officials say they had 4.5 million fewer riders in 2009 than in 2008, while a surcharge on real estate sales which brought in $1.6 million in 2007 produced only $392 million in 2009.