In my first years as a journalist on Long Island, in 1963, for a story on traffic I interviewed Austin Sarr, district engineer on the island for the then New York State Department of Public Works.

2015_1024_suffolk_closeup_grossmanSaar, well-familiar with the ever-busier highways on the island, told me at his department’s office in North Babylon of what he called “Sarr’s Law.” It stated that whenever a highway is built to relieve traffic on congested highway, the new road is soon discovered — and it gets congested, too.

The lesson of this? What Long Island needs is good public transportation — buses and trains — to move people.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the view of the state’s public works czar, Robert Moses (who resided just to the south in Babylon Village). With his devotion to cars — although he didn’t drive one; he got chauffeured around — Moses caused transportation on Long Island to be heavily based on the auto. He built the Northern State and Southern State parkways and what is described accurately as the world’s longest parking lot: the Long Island Expressway. He stressed government funding for this. And the island didn’t get a balanced transportation system.

Suffolk County executive after executive, however, in years past, pushed for public transportation. County Executive John V. N. Klein declared in 1979 that “if every hour deposited a bus somewhere in sprawling Suffolk, we would be well on our way to creating a public transportation system.”

County Executive Peter F. Cohalan in his 1980 annual report said that “Suffolk County must commit itself to the development of an efficient and reliable mass transportation system which meets the needs of all residents.” In that year Suffolk Transit was created and established a series of bus routes. Cohalan was soon announcing “that nearly 1.8 million passengers rode Suffolk County Transit during 1981” and stating: “I think these statistics reveal that if we provide convenient, reliable bus service at moderate cost, the public will buy it.”

But suddenly now, after years of bus service in Suffolk growing — with citizen advocacy being critical — the administration of County Executive Steve Bellone is cutting bus routes because county government faces financial problems. Among the routes cancelled in October were the S90 between Center Moriches and the Riverhead County Center and 10D/E between Hampton Bays and East Quogue.

It’s a terrible reversal of the work done to create a public transportation system in Suffolk. It’s a turn away from an overwhelmingly car-dominated system that has clogged our highways and from which there is no building new roads to relieve, as Sarr emphasized years ago.

Public transportation, moreover, is vital for people who can’t afford autos and for senior citizens who no longer drive. It should be a top priority for Suffolk County government.

Suffolk Legislators Kate Browning of Shirley and Bridget Fleming of Noyac have just introduced a measure titled “Establishing a Working Group to Maximize the Level of Transportation Services Provided by Suffolk County.” Their bill states that “Suffolk County’s budget for bus transportation is under extreme pressure and it must be adjusted either with increased revenue or reduced expenditures.”

This “working group” is to consist of 11 members, mostly county officials along with some town and village officials and also a bus company executive and a representative of the Long Island Bus Riders’ Union. It would “make recommendations that can serve as a basis for a new bus service plan that will reconfigure bus service where feasible to serve key ridership segments and key assets.” It would also “explore the feasibility of improving other public transportation systems in Suffolk County including railroad service.”
The measure was approved at a meeting of the Suffolk Legislature last week and now goes to Bellone for his consideration.

Will the “working group” be defeatist and settle for a shrinking of the county’s bus system? Or will it stand strong for a renewed commitment?

I grew up in Queens in the 1950s. We lived in St. Albans, all residential, and as a kid and teen I functioned easily taking buses. In high school, every weekday, I took the Q-3A bus to work at the Queensborough Public Library in Jamaica. To get to the city, I took the bus to the subway. I never drove a car and never needed to until coming to Suffolk to live in 1961. Here there was no choice then but to have and drive a car. The New York City bus system was reliable and convenient.

Suffolk Transit has been moving towards a good level of service. We should not turn back now.

A public transportation visionary on the East End was Jim Davidson. He began Hampton Jitney with a couple of vans and it became a major bus service. It now serves the entire East End. I wrote stories about Jim’s highly successful initiative; one story in 1979 that included the comment of Judith Hope, then representative of the governor on Long Island, that Jim and his Hampton Jitney were a story of how “truly dreams can come true.”

Jim created Hampton Jitney — and riders came in large numbers.

State Assemblyman Fred Thiele of Sag Harbor, working with local officials and other East End public transportation advocates, has for years advanced plans for a comprehensive system of public transportation on the East End emphasizing trains and buses. It’s high time that the plans of Thiele and his allies become reality—and they need to include a robust, not a decimated, county bus component.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.

Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.

Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl