JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO
Faced with lawsuits and increased pressure to provide more adequate services to the East End, the MTA is considering the possibility of running smaller, so-called scoot trains through East End hamlets. It’s committed almost $2.8 million to a study.
When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced it would cut weekday train service on the Greenport line this winter, elected officials and community members, angered by years of paltry service and high taxes, renewed a call for an independent Peconic Bay regional transit system.
Though the MTA later scrapped its plan to cut service, the public protest it inspired sparked a discussion of whether or not the East End could run its own transit agency cheaper and more efficiently than the MTA, operating small shuttles that were less expensive than the MTA’s commuter trains.
Now that topic has been put on hold because the MTA itself is considering putting smaller diesel-powered shuttle trains in service on the North and South forks and other parts of the island.
Earlier this year, assemblymen Marc Alessi (D-Shoreham) and Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who represent the North and South forks, respectively, introduced a bill in the state Legislature to put a non-binding referendum on the November ballot gauging interest in a regional transit system.
Mr. Alessi said this week that the legislation remains in committee and will not appear on the ballot.
“We’re putting it on hold this year,” Mr. Alessi said this week. “We’re not withdrawing the legislation.”
Mr. Alessi said discussion of seceding from the MTA, and the public outcry over its .34 percent payroll tax in a region with little train service, had forced the transit agency to examine ways to improve its service on eastern Long Island.
For one thing, the Long Island Rail Road changed its schedule earlier this month and now has a train running to Riverhead that will allow potential jurors to arrive in time for jury duty at local courthouses.
“It brought the MTA to the table,” Mr. Alessi said of last winter’s outcry. “They’re moving in a positive direction.”
Also, the MTA has agreed to fund a $2.8 million study to determine the feasibility of running smaller diesel-engine “scoot” trains on the East End and in other areas the LIRR serves, said MTA spokesman Salvatore Arena. Money for the study was allocated June 1, when the MTA approved its 2010-2014 master plan.
Only the first two years of the five-year program have received funding. The MTA expects a fleet of scoot trains to cost $78 million, a number that will be included when the last three years of the capital plan receives funding.
The alternative trains will be smaller than the current fleet of double decker trains and cheaper and easier to operate, according to Mr. Arena. They would run on portions of the railroad that are not electrified.
“The alternative diesel fleet will be more cost effective to operate and maintain” than existing conventional trains, Mr. Arena said. “Their addition to the LIRR’s rolling stock will allow the LIRR to increase service in its diesel territories in Nassau and Suffolk.”
Vince Taldone, who serves on the board of Five Town Rural Transit Inc., a nonprofit group dedicated to the development of improved public transportation on the East End, said his organization is optimistic about the smaller trains, which it has advocated for years. However, he believes it might be necessary to revisit forming an independent transit authority in the future.
“I think they are realizing that it made sense to move to the lighter vehicle,” Mr. Taldone said. “It gives people more and more options to leave their cars home.”
Meanwhile, Suffolk County will likely join neighboring Nassau in a lawsuit claiming the MTA’s payroll tax, which was instituted in 2009, is unconstitutional.
The tax requires all employers in areas served by the MTA throughout the New York metro region, including school districts and local municipalities, to pay 34 cents for every $100 spent in payroll to the MTA to support its services.
The lawsuit charges the tax should have required a two-thirds vote in the state Legislature for passage and is a violation of the state’s home rule laws.
Under home rule laws, New York State is required to submit a home rule message to local municipalities seeking permission to enact legislation that is not applied statewide. The MTA tax applies only in service areas of the MTA but no home rule message was ever sent to the affected towns and counties.
The county Legislature unanimously adopted a bill sponsored by Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) Thursday directing Suffolk to join Nassau in the lawsuit. The bill requires the signature of Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy to become law.