Op-Ed: The Hamptons—A Place of Last Resort

Long Island Rail Road (Photo by MTA).

Traffic doesn’t move too quickly on a large number of Long Island roads. Anywhere you drive, north, south, east or west you are bound to run into massive gridlock. Close to the top of the worst traffic nightmares is getting in and out of the Hamptons, all year round.

On any given day travelers in the Hamptons will be stuck in a long line of pickup trucks filled with construction workers. Add into that mix the growing number of year round residents and the day trippers anxious to see where the rich and famous are living. And if you happen to be driving out east during the apple and pumpkin picking season, allow lots of extra time to get to your destination.

It would be unfair to point the finger at the East End’s current elected officials because the gridlock is directly connected to fifty plus years of poor planning and the lack of any fresh ideas being introduced into the current debate about how to manage the massive growth that the area has experienced.

The statistics speak for themselves. Building permits are being issued at a record pace in East Hampton and Southampton towns. Between 2012 and 2013 permits in the two towns have increased by anywhere from 20 to 35 per cent. With new development comes an increased demand for services and a strain on the natural resources of the area.

Every so often some local elected official calls for a building moratorium as a way of halting growth. But the South Fork is well past the time when a freeze on permits will be effective. No matter where one looks, house after house is in a stage of renovation or new construction, gobbling up precious farmland and odd shaped lots. Newly minted hedge fund and high-tech millionaires are snapping up five million dollar houses, many of which use up all available space and lack real privacy.

Overwhelmed by the mass of new people, town and village officials are grasping at straws to find ways to confront the problems caused by the infusion of countless new people into a compact community, which has few passable roads and no potential for being expanded. The high rollers who use helicopters and chartered jets to travel to the Hamptons, may soon have to deal with community pressure to eventually close down East Hampton Airport. That means more cars.

The East End had its chance to have wider roads back in the mid-1970s when then Governor Hugh Carey proposed road widening for large portions of Montauk Highway from Westhampton to Amagansett. Carey was attacked by citizen groups who worried that better roads would destroy the local quality of life. Funded by many people who live behind the high hedges of Southampton, the project was scrapped for good. Today, many of those same people have solved the density issue by summering in Newport and similar vacation spots.

It may be too late for any serious traffic study but the state and county governments should take one last comprehensive look at possible road widening or parking bans in some communities. One of the most practical solutions to moving people is to convince the Long Island Rail Road that it’s time to make the Montauk branch into a two track rail line and schedule more trains in and out of the area.

Bike sharing programs have become a success in many cities around the world and having a summer bike share program could reduce the number of drivers with short term destinations.  An effort should be made to install more bicycle racks at beaches, cafes and popular tourist spots, with or without a bike sharing program.

Numerous cars head out to the Hamptons on a summer weekend often carrying only one passenger. Regional travel organizations should promote car pooling as a way of cutting down on traffic. A car pooling hotline could bring together the vast number of people who trek out east for a short stay. Washington D.C. has a decades-long carpool program that boasts 10,000 users and as given some relief to the area.

Cynics will dismiss this hard look at the travails of the East End as just another crazy bunch of ideas on how to reduce the Hampton gridlock. But the time has come for some new ideas to be injected into the debate that will at the very least provide some relief for hundreds of thousands of weary travelers.

Jerry Kremer is Chairman of Empire Government Strategies and served 23 years as a member of the New York State Assembly, including 12 years as Chairman of the Ways & Means Committee.