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Jun 27, 2016 5:15 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Town To Hold Off For Now On Increasing County Road 39 Speed Limit

Traffic heading east on County Road 39 on Friday morning. DANA SHAW
Jun 28, 2016 4:24 PM

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman’s suggestion early last month that the speed limit on County Road 39 in Southampton could be increased from 35 to 45 mph to alleviate congestion has screeched to a halt—at least until fall.

That’s because Suffolk County officials first need to conduct a traffic analysis to see if increasing the speed limit is safe. At the same time, Town Police Chief Robert Pearce has said he is not in favor of increasing the limit by 10 mph.

When Mr. Schneiderman suggested raising the speed limit at a Town Board work session last month, he explained that eastbound traffic begins to back up where Sunrise Highway ends and County Road 39 begins in Shinnecock Hills—in part because the speed limit drops from 55 to 45 mph before the highway ends, and then to 35 mph when County Road 39 begins. Mr. Schneiderman said he believes the quick drop causes motorists to slow down, ultimately creating the congestion that those who travel on the road are all too familiar with.

Mr. Schneiderman had also said that South Fork drivers could expect some type of change by early July. Last week, however, he said he has not moved forward, as Chief Pearce does not seem to favor of raising the speed limit by 10 mph—and has suggested that the town perhaps meet in the middle instead.

“He doesn’t seem to like the 45. He’s willing to maybe go to 40,” Mr. Schneiderman said last week of the chief, noting that the change would apply to the entire stretch, as the speed limit is already 45 mph east of North Sea Road. “The idea of 40 the whole way would mean one section would go up by 5 mph, and one section would go down by 5 mph.”

Chief Pearce said that he would prefer that engineers study the traffic patterns on County Road 39 before the town decides to move forward with raising the speed limit to 45, which would require a public hearing before the Town Board, the adoption of a local law, and a referral to Suffolk County so that speed limit signs can be changed, as the county has jurisdiction over the road, although the town sets the speed limit.

He also noted that he would like town officials to refer to a report, issued by county traffic engineers just before County Road 39 was widened in 2007, which suggested that the speed limit be reduced to 35 mph.

“I know there was a reason for it,” he said.

According to Tom Neely, the town’s director of public transportation and traffic safety, the 2007 suggestion from the county for a 35-mph speed limit came about because of the lane widths on County Road 39, as well as the lack of shoulders and other design elements.

“You do look at the road itself, like the geometry of the road, the layout of the road. You do look at the speed people travel,” Mr. Neely explained.

Following the county’s direction, the Southampton Town Board had unanimously adopted a resolution in August 2007 that reduced the speed limit on County Road 39 west of North Sea Road from 45 to 35 mph.

That reduced limit had also been used during a “cops-and-cones” program, where cones were set up to create a second eastbound lane in the mornings leading up to the expansion of the road that fall, so that motorists could get used to the change. Police officers had routinely patrolled the road to monitor speed.

In 2008, however, then-Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot suggested raising the speed limit back to 45 mph, but the Town Board ultimately agreed to keep it at 35 mph after former Town Police Chief James Overton and other police officials warned that raising the speed could put both drivers and pedestrians in greater danger. “If someone’s going to get in an accident, I’d rather see it happen at 35 mph than 60 mph,” Chief Overton said at the time.

History appears to be repeating itself. “I am not in support of the 45. I would want to see [a] study being done by the experts,” Chief Pearce said.

“I would tend to say that the last speed survey they had done, the mean speed, when they eliminate the high ones and the low ones, it was around 42 mph,” he added. “I think they should at least take a look at it. It’s certainly worth doing a study.”

The County Department of Public Works will soon be doing an analysis of the road, which DPW Commissioner Gil Anderson said will involve studying how many cars are on County Road 39 at any given time, along with applying formulas to determine what the average travel speed is.

“We’re looking into it, we’re studying it. We’ll undertake a traffic study. It’ll probably take a few months,” Mr. Anderson said, noting that county officials should know by the fall whether they would be comfortable with the town raising the speed limit. “I think, just off the top of my head, it’ll probably be OK.”

So do many others. In a poll of 1,147 Press readers, 68 percent were in favor of increasing the speed limit to 45 mph, while 31 percent were not.

Those in favor agreed that the current speed limit is too low, and said that since it is often not followed, or enforced, it should be raised.

Those who were against the increase argued that changes need to be made to the road first—such as adding a median, or widening it again.

Mr. Schneiderman said he personally doesn’t believe that drivers who exceed the 35-mph speed limit would travel any faster than they already do if the limit was 45 mph. He admitted, though, that the current limit isn’t regularly enforced, mainly because there is no shoulder on County Road 39 where police could pull motorists over to the side of the road. But the supervisor stressed that a 45-mph speed limit would be strictly enforced.

“I don’t want people going over 55. In fact, I don’t really want people driving over the speed limit. The speed limit is there for a reason,” the supervisor said. “Anyone who drives, really, over 50 ... is acting, to me, irresponsible.

“Will making it 45 mph make it more dangerous? I don’t think so,” Mr. Schneiderman added. “It’s going to be 45 or more on a typical day.”

Mr. Anderson and Mr. Neely agreed. “Unfortunately, drivers tend to drive at the speed they’re comfortable at. If there’s enough speed, and there’s not much volume, people go faster,” Mr. Anderson said. “Most roads are designed for a certain speed limit. And, similarly, most speed limits are really defined because of the design of the road.”

“[In] the studies I read, people mostly drive with the road conditions,” Mr. Neely said. “That has to do with the layout of the road, the weather, how many other vehicles are around them.”

Chief Pearce, however, is not on the same page just yet.

“There’s always the correlation between speed and severity of accidents, that’s a given. But whether people would travel in excess of the posted speed limit, I really couldn’t offer an opinion on that,” he said. “County Road 39, being that it is a major thoroughfare, and one of only two to service the East End, when we do have accidents, they have a major impact to the community. And whether increasing the speed limit would affect that, that would up to the engineers.”

According to data collected by the State Department of Transportation, to which the Police Department reports accidents, about 2,315 crashes took place on County Road 39 over the last decade, between 2005 and 2015. Of those accidents, just 50 were marked as being caused by speeding, although nearly 1,000 crash reports did not list a cause.

When presented with the data, Mr. Neely said that even though such information can be valuable when conducting a traffic analysis, some causes listed for accidents tend to be subjective.

“Things like going too fast, I think, are judgment calls based on what people in the accident say,” he said, noting that before County Road 39 was widened, there was a higher percentage of rear-ending crashes because of the congestion. “There are a lot of reasons for accidents. The nature of the accidents can change as the road changes.”

Mr. Schneiderman said that if officials and residents strongly believe that 45 mph is not a safe speed for that stretch of County Road 39, then the idea will be dropped. However, he explained that because he has believed all along that it should have remained 45 mph, he wants to at least seriously consider the option.

“This is an old thing for me. I had suggested [it] when we first widened the road,” he said. “If you ask people about that section of road, this is the response I get: ‘Well, nobody goes 35 anyway.’

“There are a number of people … that do do 35. And the few people that are doing 35 can back up [traffic] to East Quogue,” he said. “It doesn’t really cost anything to make it a 45-mph speed limit.

“For the most part, I’ve been asking a lot of people. Nine out of 10 people … say it should go to 45,” Mr. Schneiderman added. “The people who drive that road feel that the 35-mph speed limit is ridiculous.”

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Does the Supervisor ever drive from the Lobster Inn to the diner at 7 AM in the morning? Unlikely IMO, as the 35 MPH is a very minor part of the problem.

SATURATION is the main problem, and trying to cram more cars down the pipe more quickly is not going to solve anything. Mo' cars -- mo' problems . . .

Get the East End Shuttle going again on the LIRR. Parking lots to the west, and at each stop out here, with N/S shuttle buses. A planned symbiotic SYSTEM. ...more
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Jun 28, 16 9:57 AM
2 members liked this comment
No the Supervisor drives from Montauk to SH everyday - ha
By farmlocal (83), Southampton on Jun 28, 16 11:54 AM
A park and ride along the way would help...just after the canal
By The Real World (368), southampton on Jun 28, 16 12:38 PM
Capacity, as Dolly Parton says : 'You can't put 10 pounds of mud into a 5-pound sack!'.
Just concentrate on making the road SAFER.
By TheTurtle (143), Southampton on Jun 29, 16 9:16 AM