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Suffolk to test Uber-style transit in Southampton

A view of the Suffolk County seal.

A view of the Suffolk County seal. Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

Suffolk County officials said they are planning to test a new public transportation service that would pick riders up on-demand, providing an Uber-style service for around the same cost as a bus ride.

County officials said they are seeking vendors to design and operate a pilot “microtransit” program in eastern Southampton Town, an area with limited public transportation, to test whether the service would work there and in other parts of the county.

Officials said they envision a service that would pick up passengers who order rides through a mobile app, fetch other riders along the route in an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant van and drop them off within a limited area. They aim to have it launch by July.

The plan comes as officials study restructuring transit services countywide.

“We are laser focused on modernizing our transit system and embracing cutting-edge transportation alternatives that better connect our residents,” County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement.

But some in the taxi industry are concerned about microtransit hurting their business.

Bryan DaParma, owner of Hometown Taxi Inc. of Southampton, said he worries the program will take away business from area taxis. His company used to operate 60 to 70 cars in that area on weekend nights four years ago and now operates around five.

“The taxi industry is struggling right now to compete against Uber with all the licensing and regulations in place,” DaParma said. “To just add another hurdle to us is hurting the drivers, community and people who work for us.”

Microtransit — small-scale, on-demand public transit — could be a more viable option on the East End because buses have low ridership and high costs in low-density areas, said Jonathan Keyes, the county director of downtown and transited-oriented development.

Details of the Suffolk program would depend on vendor proposals, Keyes said. It may take riders to specific locations only, such as transit hubs, or go to any destination riders request within a certain zone, according to the request for proposals issued Feb. 20. Officials said they hope to have it run on weekdays and cost riders around the same as bus fare, which ranges from $0.75 to $2.25. Riders could pay through an app or in exact cash.

Officials, who have set aside $400,000 in state funding for the transit pilot, spent around $42 million on bus service in 2018, the most recent figure available.

The pilot aims to run between Southampton Village and Sag Harbor, where the 10A bus route — which ran from the Stony Brook Southampton campus to North Haven — was one of several bus lines eliminated in 2016 in a cost-cutting measure, Keyes said.

That route was a “lifeline” for people in that area and is now essentially a “transit desert,” said Tom Neely, Southampton Town’s transportation director.

Only one county bus route runs in the town, and it runs north only between Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor. The South Fork Commuter Connection, which launched in March 2019, provides shuttle service from Long Island Rail Road stations to downtowns and employment centers on weekdays. 

The pilot route would likely run from the Southampton train station on a northern route, complementing the commuter service that has a route going south of the station,  Keyes said.

Advocacy group OLA of Eastern Long Island has had to fill in a service gap by providing free medical transportation to residents in the area, executive director Minerva Perez said.

“It would be a wonderful thing if we could make this work for everyone in our community,” Perez said of the pilot.

Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac) said the pilot would test if the program is cost-effective and “if it works in the Sag Harbor area, we’ll be able to replicate it elsewhere.”

Municipalities in Texas and Florida already provide an Uber-style microtransit program. In 2017, Nassau began operating a microtransit service in Elmont that runs along a fixed route but can deviate to certain locations, such as a hospital, upon request, said Jack Khzouz, Chief Executive Officer of NICE Bus. The Elmont FLEXI program serves about 400 riders daily. 

Suffolk officials said they are hoping taxi companies bid for the job, along with companies like Uber. They noted the request for proposals, issued Feb. 20, requires drivers to have commercial licenses.

But DaParma said that taxis may struggle to operate such a program because they would have to get approvals and licensing from each municipality in which they would conduct business. 

Vendors could seek regulation waivers, according to the request for proposal. 

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