In 2010, a decision was made by the County of Suffolk to widen the most easterly portion of County Road 39 from the North Sea Road intersection to where the road ends at Hampton Road further to the east. When the time came in 2012 to stripe all the lanes, it was secretly decided to build a passing lane down the middle and then two lanes eastbound, but just one lane westbound. That would mean many more cars would head into the eastern villages of the Hamptons, but fewer would be going out, since, in fact, there’s no other direct way out. The work was completed in the spring of 2013.
The idea behind all this, of course, was to help the economy. By that time, we were all mired in the fourth year of the Great Recession, and many stores were struggling to make ends meet. Particularly in East Hampton and Amagansett that year, as many as half the stores in the downtowns closed in the wintertime. Many merchants moved out altogether, leaving FOR RENT signs placed in the windows by the landlords. These were desperate times and these were desperate measures.
It’s fair to say that the summer of 2013 proved the effectiveness of this lane decision. East of Hampton Road, there were almost constant traffic jams as the motorists jockeyed to make their way through Water Mill and Bridgehampton. Most of the stores rallied and rebounded. Not only was the summer of 2013 as good a year for the merchants as any in recent memory, but in some cases merchants were absolutely overwhelmed with customers lined up out the front doors. Parking in the lots in East Hampton and Amagansett was very difficult. Montauk was booming. I recall several times driving into downtown East Hampton to do a little shopping, only to drive around, fail to find a place to park, and then drive back home to my house on Three Mile Harbor Road to try another day.
As a result of this overwhelming success, Suffolk County is this fall re-thinking the way this road will be striped for the upcoming year. They have held three meetings about this already and will soon decide whether to leave the two-lanes-in-and-one-lane-back-out situation for 2014, or change it so it’s one lane in and two lanes back out.
The dramatic reversal of our fortunes in the summer of 2013 suggests that making the change could be like playing with fire. With two lanes heading back out, it could be the equivalent of having a plug pulled. The crowds of people who came to the eastern towns in the Hamptons in 2013 and who are still here, rattling around, unable to get out, might just rush out toward New York City in a thundering herd, emptying out the towns as quickly as the current situation got them jammed in.
“It’s a very delicate business,” said one county legislator. “One thought we had was to do it only as a half measure—that is to say, leaving things as they are for the first half of the summer, but then reversing things for the last half. Trouble is that this could upset people quite a bit. First of all, we’d have to shut down the road to re-stripe the lines in the middle of the summer for two days. Second of all, motorists might get confused at the sudden change and be driving one way or another in the wrong lane. We’ve pretty much rejected that option.”
The legislature expects to hold at least two and possibly three more meetings through to the end of this calendar year and then make a decision on which way to go, so to speak, sometime in January.
This is a tough one. We wish County Legislator Jay Schneiderman and his cohorts all the best in making this difficult decision.