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North Fork struggles to find light at end of traffic-jam tunnel

Roads clogged with vehicles are no longer a summer-only problem, prompting officials and residents to refocus their efforts at scaling back the congestion and maintaining quality of life.

Eastbound traffic builds up on Route 25 in

Eastbound traffic builds up on Route 25 in Aquebogue on a recent weekday. The North Fork has seen steady increases in traffic volume that extend beyond summer and well into the fall season. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

The North Fork, the land of wineries, farms and pristine beaches, is trying to escape a foe long associated with the city of yellow cabs: increased traffic congestion.

The proliferation of winery and farm events on weekends, beachgoers looking for a quiet place on the Sound, second-home owners heading east, and visitors enjoying hiking trails or restaurants have created bumper-to-bumper traffic jams usually associated with the Hamptons.

And the problem of vehicle-choked roads is extending from the summer months into the fall season.

William C. Van Helmond, who owns a landscaping company, said his typical 17.9-mile commute between home on South Jamesport Avenue in Riverhead and a landscaping job in Greenport means trying to finish work before noon on weekends to avoid delays of more than 90 minutes on Route 25.

“I can literally sit and look out the window and I see the same cars sitting there for four, five, six minutes,” Van Helmond, 53, said. “And it just backs up and gets worse and worse and worse.”

Officials have sought to reduce congestion by getting people out of their cars and onto trolleys, improving traffic flow by extending the length of green lights, denying access to some roads for vehicles above certain weight limits and most recently inviting officials in several North Forth communities and Suffolk County representatives to come together to discuss traffic solutions.

“It’s getting to be more of a year-round thing as tourism grows,” said Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio. “We are starting to see hotels fill up a lot more with more and more visitors because of the increasing attractions such as wine tours and visits to farm stands in the spring for Easter flowers.”

Officials note that fall, with its pumpkin patches and corn mazes, is more congested and has helped spread the traffic woes. Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the “busy” summer season now extends well past Labor Day.

“I’d say summer traffic is awful, but not nearly as bad as that fall traffic,” Russell said.

What the patterns show

Several of the major roads on the North Fork have for decades seen a steady increase in traffic volume, according to historical data from the state Department of Transportation:

Riverhead

Peconic Bay Boulevard, which town officials have identified as a frequently clogged area, has seen a continual uptick in traffic since the state’s earliest recorded numbers in 1977. That year, the annual average daily traffic on a 2.56-mile section of the road stretching from Meetinghouse Creek Road in Aquebogue to Tuts Lane in South Jamesport showed about 1,300 vehicles traveled the roadway.

The roadway carried about 2,461 vehicles per day, according to data from 2015, the most current statistics available.

A section of New York State Route 25 that stretches 0.4 miles, from Old Country Road/Route 58 to Cross River Drive (Route 105), has seen a drastic increase in traffic since 1979, when the annual average daily traffic was 13,550 vehicles. In 2015, records show the annual daily average was 22,891 vehicles.

Southold

In Southold, sections of County Road 48, Sound Avenue and NY-25, or Main Road, were among the top 10 areas to attract traffic, according to those same state figures. Ranking at the top was a 1.4-mile segment of County Road 48 from Elijahs Lane to Depot Lane, which in 2015 recorded an annual daily traffic average of 16,525 vehicles, only 24 fewer than its average the year before.

A 3.85-mile section of NY-25 stretching from South Jamesport Avenue to Sound Avenue in Mattituck — which drew 14,160 vehicles in 1977 — rose steadily from a yearly 13,973 vehicle average in 2008 to 14,464 in 2012 before dipping slightly to 14,405 in 2015.

No silver-bullet solution

The state DOT is working with local communities to find ways to improve traffic flow, said Stephen Canzoneri, public information officer for the agency’s Region 10, which includes the 13 towns and two cities in Nassau and Suffolk counties, but solutions have been hard to find. Riverhead and Southold officials have tried several measures, with limited success, to curb congestion on their busiest roadways:

Longer green lights

In Riverhead, Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and Police Chief David Hegermiller said officials are again experimenting with changing and extending the timing of green traffic lights along the town’s busiest roads, such as Sound Avenue and Peconic Bay Boulevard.

Result: Hegermiller said there had been some success in reducing congestion, but that the volume of traffic remains a primary problem.

Weight limits on busy roads

In March 2017, the Riverhead Town Board adopted weight limits on Peconic Bay Boulevard, prohibiting motor vehicles with a total weight of greater than 16,000 pounds — or eight tons — except for local deliveries.

Result: Town officials said the weight limits on 21 roadways have helped reduce traffic on busier roads, but that the volume of tourism-related traffic still produces delays during the summer and fall. Weight limits for Peconic Bay Boulevard in Southold were suggested in the past, but Russell said the idea had “not been well-received” by Southold’s Transportation Commission.

Increased police presence

At a March 26 meeting in Mattituck attended by North Fork politicians, officials and residents, Southold residents suggested placing more police officers at normally busy streets such as Main Road in Southold as part of traffic-calming measures. Russell noted that the town had done so in 2017, along Main Road near the increasingly popular Lavender by the Bay lavender farm in East Marion. In his State of the Town address in March, Russell said that he would ask the town board to consider a proposal that would charge private businesses that attract large crowds for traffic control from Southold Police.

Result: Southold spent $6,070 last year on combined overtime and law enforcement-related costs to police the roads near the lavender farm, up from about $4,000 in similar expenditures to police that road in 2016. Adding officers on other roads led to increased overtime costs, Russell said.

“Officers can only put in so much overtime,” Russell said at the meeting. “You have many square miles of Southold Town . . . and all these different venues and you can’t provide policing at every section.”

By land and sea

Several long-term ideas have been suggested to help ease the North Fork’s congestion:

Water taxis

It was an option offered by North Fork and Suffolk County officials at a February traffic summit in Southold, but Riverhead Town Councilwoman Catherine Kent was hesitant about the idea. “I’m not sure if I want to have a lot of traffic on the local waterways,” she said.

More trains

Riverhead Supervisor Jens-Smith said the town should continue working with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to boost train service during the busy seasons, as well as possibly create a connecting line from Ronkonkoma to Riverhead.

Eric Alexander, director of Northport-based regional planning group Vision Long Island, suggested that North Fork communities consider investing more in options such as “scoot” train services that run smaller routes between certain stops around the community. Southold launched such an initiative in 2017, operating trial routes of trolley cars that began running in Mattituck and Greenport.

Alexander said the challenge is finding a solution that residents on the North Fork would find acceptable — and not intrusive — to the way of life they had grown accustomed to.

Riverhead and Southold Town officials held preliminary discussions last October about possibly collaborating for a round of grant funding through the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program, which grants between $5 million and $25 million to communities pitching infrastructure projects with “a significant impact” on a region. But Dawn Thomas, Riverhead’s community development administrator, said the town has since decided to apply on its own for a new program launched in late April that replaces the TIGER grants.

New studies

Stephen Canzoneri, public information officer for Region 10 of the state DOT, said in a statement that the department is in the final stages of a pedestrian and bicycle study of State Route 25 on the North Fork.

“Traffic signals in Greenport, specifically near the ferry terminal, are also being studied for better passage of traffic,” Canzoneri said.

Southold is awaiting a final draft report of a traffic study on Love Lane in Mattituck. A preliminary draft released in December 2017 lists several potential traffic calming strategies within the Love Lane/Mattituck Hamlet Center, including additional off-street parking lots; adding left turn lanes on County Route 48 at Westphalia Avenue and Wickham Avenue; and speed bumps, raised pavement and radar spots.

More town-local business collaboration

Officials said that more immediate and possibly more feasible solutions should be enacted while more permanent alternatives are being explored and implemented.

In Riverhead, such solutions could include working with agritourism businesses such as farms and wineries during the peak tourism seasons to ensure businesses can contain the traffic they absorb through easier entry and exit points, Jens-Smith said. She pointed to Harbes Family Farm, which has several sites in Jamesport and Riverhead. Edward Harbes, owner of Harbes Family Farm & Vineyard in Jamesport, said at the March meeting that his farm had been considering changing its business model to cut down on fall traffic. Hegermiller said police and the Harbes family have been working on adding parking signage and better ways for vehicles to enter and exit the property.

Hegermiller also suggested using temporary pedestrian bridges at sites in Riverhead that attract large crowds, similar to what U.S. Open organizers have used when the golf event — which draws thousands every year — has been held in Southampton.

Looking ahead

Linda Prizer, president of the Northville Beach Civic Association, said the traffic situation in the past two years has gotten worse during pumpkin-picking season in the fall, particularly on Sound Avenue, where more drivers seeking detours to avoid getting stuck in traffic have driven up Sound Shore Road, which she regularly walks.

“People walk it with little kids and they ride their bikes, so it’s very dangerous when people fly down here [South Shore Road] like they do in pumpkin season,” said Prizer, adding that her group has been discussing possible solutions with town officials since 2017. “I’ve had my hat blown off my head, that’s how fast people go.”

Van Helmond, the landscape company owner, said there had to be a way to balance supporting the tourism industry while preserving residents’ quality of life.

“We want people to make money and we want our quality of life to stay the same, because it’s a great place to live out here,” Van Helmond said. “[The increased traffic] is not an invasion, but it does create some issues for us, and that’s what we want to address.”

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