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Feb 9, 2010 7:12 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Peconic Bay Regional Transportation Authority could be a reality, after years of dreaming

Feb 9, 2010 7:12 PM

When New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. first introduced legislation to create a Peconic Bay Regional Transportation Authority in 2003, it was more fantasy than reality.

“It was kind of a pipe dream at the time,” Mr. Thiele said Friday.

But the political winds have shifted since then. Two developments that came within months of each other—a new payroll tax approved in May to help the Metropolitan Transportation Authority cover a budget deficit, and a recent MTA proposal that would essentially eliminate all Long Island Rail Road service on the North Fork—have turned public opinion further against the authority in a region that had already been grumbling for years about paying taxes for paltry service.

Now, the long-standing idea that the five East End towns should secede from the MTA and form their own public transportation system might finally have legs, according Mr. Thiele, who represents the South Fork, and other local leaders.

“Crisis sometimes breeds opportunity, and that’s where we are,” Mr. Thiele said.

Officials at the state level made an initial move toward that goal last Thursday, February 4, when Mr. Thiele, whose office is in Sag Harbor, and Assemblyman Marc Alessi, who represents the North Fork, co-sponsored a bill that would authorize a non-binding public referendum on the idea of creating a Peconic Bay Regional Transportation Authority. The referendum, which they hope to have on the ballot this November, would go before registered voters in the five East End towns. State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle introduced an identical bill in his chamber that same day.

If the legislation becomes law, a question would appear on the ballot on the next Election Day, asking East End residents whether or not they support the formation of a Peconic Bay Regional Transportation Authority to replace the MTA in their region.

The referendum would be non-binding, meaning that it is intended only to gauge public support of the idea. But the results of that referendum could lay the groundwork for future legislation that could create a new transit system on the East End years down the line, according to Mr. Thiele and Mr. Alessi. The referendum bills have been passed on to committees in each chamber, and it is unclear when they will come to a vote.

Both Mr. Thiele and Mr. Alessi said they have spoken with LIRR President Helena Williams about a separate East End transportation authority in recent weeks. “She’s been very willing to have these kinds of discussions,” Mr. Thiele said. He noted that this represents a shift from previous years, in which he said the LIRR was “dismissive” of similar talks.

Representatives of the LIRR did not return calls seeking comment this week.

Mr. Thiele and Mr. Alessi said they plan to broach the topic in more detail with Ms. Williams at a private meeting between LIRR representatives and local officials scheduled for Friday, February 26.

“We have never been closer to realizing the possibility of our own regional transportation authority,” Mr. Alessi said.

The nascent plan is also unfolding at the federal level. U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, who represents the five East End towns and eastern Brookhaven Town and sits on the House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that he is seeking $1 million in federal funds to continue engineering and environmental studies of a potential transit system—another early step in what Mr. Thiele said will be a long process.

“This is something that is a long-term project that would take upward of a decade,” he said.

Mr. Thiele said he was spurred to renew his push for a Peconic Bay Regional Transportation Authority after the MTA announced on January 25 that it is prepared to eliminate nearly all train service between Ronkonkoma and Greenport, as well as cancel a peak train that runs between Queens and Montauk, as part of a plan close a $400 million budget shortfall that it became aware of in December.

That announcement came after New York Governor David Paterson approved a new payroll tax in May that was designed to help close the MTA’s budget gap. The tax, which took effect on September 1, requires that employers operating in the 12 counties near New York City, including Suffolk County, pay 34 cents on every $100 in employee wages, with the revenues supporting the MTA.

“It’s really kind of hit a raw nerve,” Mr. Thiele said of those developments.

On Monday, Governor Paterson announced that he will seek to ease the payroll tax burden for Suffolk County and other counties outside New York City as part of his proposed 2010-11 state budget. Mr. Paterson wants to cut the payroll tax for businesses outside New York City by half, lowering the rate to 17 cents per $100, and raise the tax rate for business within New York City to 54 cents per $100.

That proposal would still require approval from the New York State Legislature along with the rest of the 2010-11 budget, which would take effect on April 1. The state budget has not yet been adopted.

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Thank you Mr. Thiele for your hard work on this issue through the years. It may be an idea whose time has come.
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Feb 10, 10 12:21 PM
Good Idea. If we're going to pay, we might as well get something in return.
By danrudan (40), Southampton on Feb 10, 10 9:12 PM
Sadly, pure political grandstanding at its' worst. Good luck...without Shelly Silver's blessing this will remain a pipe dream. Just like Peconic County. Who blocked that Fred?
By nellie (451), sag harbor on Feb 10, 10 10:10 PM
1 member liked this comment
Its a great idea to link both forks. In addition it never seems like we get our fair share so we need our own voice and services. I think Peconic County would also be a good idea. Albany takes but doesnt giventh.
By North Sea Citizen (568), North Sea on Feb 11, 10 6:23 AM
2 members liked this comment
Great editorial in the new Press. Thank you.
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Feb 11, 10 1:22 PM
Better talk to Shelly Silver. Nothing gets done in this state without Shelly's OK. Fred knows this too. Shelly killed Peconic County.
By nellie (451), sag harbor on Feb 11, 10 7:56 PM
Correctamundo!!!
By Terry (380), Southampton on Feb 12, 10 12:54 PM
Calverton rail spur announced today by Riverhead Town Board, but it is against the rules to post the link here.
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Feb 11, 10 7:14 PM
I always think that local government should be preferred generally in funding over distant government. However, it is difficult to see how a Peconic MTA would succeed. Assuming that the LIRR continues the minimal service that it proposes,the current MTA would insist that the a Peconic MTA give it all the revenues it collects because even that\
minimal service would still operate at a deficit.

The LIRR has been decreasing service to the East End for decades. (Remember the proposal ...more
By highhatsize (4217), East Quogue on Feb 13, 10 9:03 AM
1 member liked this comment