North Fork officials come together to talk traffic woes

Officials from Southold and Riverhead towns, Suffolk County, and New York State met Wednesday morning to discuss how to address traffic issues on the North Fork.

They agreed on one thing: there’s not one “silver bullet” to completely solve traffic problems, but perhaps a combination of methods, whether they be trolley services or other mechanisms, to mitigate them.

“The reality is we’re not gonna find a solution today,” Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said at the start of the meeting at the Peconic Lane recreation center. A global solution isn’t likely and the hope that getting the different agencies together could lead to multiple, smaller-scale ideas communities can get behind.

Mr. Russell and other officials said the build up is not the product of just one major business, such as Harbes Farm’s attractions, or pumpkin farms alone, but the sheer volume of visitors making their way east during harvest season.

Southold Town Councilman Bill Ruland suggested the gathering in December. 

Also at the meeting were Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley and Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller.

Riverhead is the “choking point” at the start of the North Fork, Chief Hegermiller said.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the towns have to come together to solve traffic concerns. Credit: Kelly Zegers

“It’s just too many cars on a two-lane highway going eastbound,” he said, mostly of Sound Avenue, which flows freely until someone stops to let a pedestrian cross or make a left turn. A pedestrian footbridge near Harbes Farm on Sound Avenue could help alleviate that, he said.

He noted that some drivers use the Waze app, which finds alternative routes in traffic and sends people down residential roads. Police ended up barricading Sound Shore Road for residents only to use last year, he said.

Riverhead deals with traffic year-round, while Southold Town sees a spike more six months out of the years, Chief Flatley said. Many issues for the police department during that time come down to special events and the harvest season.

The department has received suggestions to make on road one-way eastbound and another westbound in the busy season, but when drivers get to the North Fork, there are only three options—  Sound Avenue, Main Road and Peconic Bay Boulevard. Bigger cities have more options to reroute traffic, he said.

“I have a hard time believing that we can make a one-way road system on holiday weekends work out in Riverhead or Southold,” he said. “I can’t imagine telling homeowners that if you live on Sound Avenue and go to Mattituck before you go to Riverhead. It really restricts it with the geography of the North Fork.”

New York State police and county sheriff’s deputies were also at the session, as well as members of Southold Town’s transportation commission, engineering and planning departments.

Mr. Ruland mentioned how the North Fork Trolley service saw success towards the end of its trial run last fall, but noted it’s not the “end-all” solution. Greenport Village Mayor George Hubbard said the village wants to expand a shuttle service this year to alleviate traffic and parking congestion for festivals, in addition to convincing more people to take the train out.

“I think it’s important to be proactive and to think outside of the box,” Riverhead Town Councilwoman Catherine Kent said.

Bill Hillman, chief engineer at Suffolk County Department of Public Works, said while mass transit has value, it will not solve the problem on the North Fork.

“The issue is you need to transport people from the Long Island Expressway to some point east and you need to transport them in an efficient manner on a roadway,” he said of creating some four-lane connection from the expressway closer to Sound Avenue.

“In my opinion you have an opportunity to potentially make some decisions today that will take a long time to come to fruition, but if those decisions remain and the community embraces them…then you might not find yourself in the same position that the South Fork is right now,” he said.

John Stype, an legislative aid for Al Krupski, a Suffolk County legislator, said the group should bring in South Fork officials to discuss how they have dealt with traffic concerns over the years.

Mr. Russell said more immediate solutions are needed. He agreed that the larger issue won’t be solved without dramatic changes, but those changes might not be well-received publicly. It would come down to choosing the lesser of two evils, he said — traffic or a four-lane highway — and traffic would likely be the choice. 

When the idea of a North Fork traffic study also came up, Mr. Russell noted that if there’s interest in spending the funds to do so, it’s not necessarily worth it unless its findings are implemented.

Officials said going forward, a meeting should be held with businesses, including farms, on traffic impacts.

Photo caption: Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley and other police officials from the North Fork were among those discussing traffic concerns Wednesday. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

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