27 East ~ By Erin McKinley ~

It is difficult not to grow frustrated with the gridlock that often greets drivers as they approach the Riverside traffic circle.

In the morning and evening rush hours, and regardless of their approach—Flanders Road, Nugent Drive and Riverleigh, Lake and Peconic avenues all converge at the same single-lane traffic circle—most know that they will inevitably lose 10 to 15 minutes, the time it takes to travel just half a mile in many instances, as driver after driver attempts to merge.

The same scenario plays out again around lunchtime most days, when many head to downtown Riverhead to grab a bite or employees of the nearby Suffolk County government complex meet others for lunch at the many downtown restaurants. It is also common to spot pedestrians walking along the shoulder of the roads that approach the circle, easily overtaking those stuck behind their steering wheels.

“The traffic circle fails even in the off-season, whether it is rush hour or not,” Vince Taldone of Riverhead, a former president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association said this week. “It’s not good for Riverside, it’s not good for Riverhead downtown.

“People aren’t used to that kind of traffic—it frustrates them and it deters them from going out,” he added.

But those inevitable delays could soon be history as long as Suffolk County’s estimated $5 million overhaul and widening of the traffic circle, work that is scheduled to start by mid-April and take between 18 and 24 months to complete, is as successful in real life as blueprints that have taken years to finalize suggest.

The work includes transforming the current single-lane circle into a two-lane oval, with the interior lane designed to make it easier for drivers trying to enter the circle to know when cars already in the roundabout plan to exit. The redesign will require periodic road closures at night when the bulk of construction is expected to take place. During the day, contractors will be allowed to complete only work that will not disrupt traffic, according to Bill Hillman, chief engineer for the Suffolk County Department of Public Works.

Once the heavy work is completed, crews will then install sidewalks and crosswalks in the area to help make it more pedestrian friendly and also better link the nearby Suffolk County offices with Riverside and downtown Riverhead. Landscaping utilizing natural vegetation will help filter stormwater from the road. In order to accommodate the redesign, Southampton Town voters agreed in a public referendum a few years back to donate a one-sixth of an acre piece of parkland on the northwest side of the circle, nearest the Peconic River, to Suffolk County.

Last month, utility companies were seen in the area completing preliminary work, such as the installation and rerouting of drains and piping, to clear the way for Pioneer Asphalt, the Kings Park company that won the $4.6 million contract from Suffolk County and will be completing the renovation.

Representatives from Pioneer Asphalt were not immediately available for comment this week.

Local officials, meanwhile, are excited that, after years of discussions and planning, the work is about to get under way.

Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, who has helped secure additional funding for the work over the past year, said she is pleased that work will begin shortly, noting that most of it will be completed in the overnight hours so the circle can remain open during the day.

“The circle serves a really important purpose in moving people through the area, so it is very important that we get it right,” she said. “There is a very high volume that goes through that circle, so in order for the region to function well you need the circle to work well.”

In addition to easing mind-numbing traffic during the week, and also on weekends during the warmer months, local officials are confidant that a larger and more efficient traffic circle will help with ongoing revitalization efforts in the hamlet of Riverside, a community littered with abandoned buildings and vacant properties. Those efforts, officials noted, will also benefit from Southampton Town’s recent decision to create a zoning overlay district that allows property owners to alter the uses of their properties.

“If you’ve got a circle that is already not working, you are behind the eight ball in trying to get the neighborhood up and running in a way that serves the whole community,” Ms. Fleming said. “In order to keep moving in a direction that is good for the community in terms of reducing crime and bringing in business that will serve the community, we are going to need to make sure that the circle can handle the current volume of traffic, which it doesn’t do right now.”

Though he could not provide a count of how many vehicles utilize it each day or week, Mr. Hillman noted that the traffic circle has been classified as “failing” by the county for years. He also warned that due to the circle’s unusual design—five roads converge at it rather than the normal four—traffic could still be prone to backing up at times even after the redesign.

Even so, many people see the improvements as the first step to changing the area. Sean McLean of Renaissance Downtowns, a company hired by Southampton Town to help spur revitalization efforts in the Riverside area, stressed that infrastructure improvements are an important part of the process to complete early if the town wants to be able to attract business to the area. The Flanders resident noted that the recent installation of two traffic signals to the west on Flanders Road, one of the arteries feeding the circle, and a new oval circle capable of accommodating more vehicles should help move things along.

“I think that it is great to address these current issues, but it is also one of the first infrastructure items that needs to be improved on for the future development,” Mr. McLean said. “It is a very important first step for the overall development to move forward.”

In addition to helping drivers, Mr. McLean thinks the changes will have a positive impact on pedestrians. With proper walkways and crosswalks, he said, more people, including those who work at the nearby county center and downtown Riverhead, will be inclined to leave their vehicles behind on nice days and walk.

“This [work] figuratively and literally paves the way for the redevelopment to not only happen, but to happen faster,” Mr. McLean said.

Longtime area residents, like Terri Holtgrewe, are also excited about the pending traffic circle overhaul, agreeing that the area’s traffic woes must be one of the first issues addressed.

“I am very excited to see the change that is going on,” said Ms. Holtgrewe, who has lived in Flanders for the past 40 years. “It brings a new hope and life to this area.”

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who pushed to have the work done when he served as a county legislator, agreed with that assessment. He added that he is looking forward to seeing the work begin after years and years of planning.

“The community is getting very excited to see the progress,” he said. “There has always been a lot of talk about the area and studies, but they want concrete change, something tangible that they can point to and say things are improving.”

For Siris Barrios, a community liaison working for Riverside Rediscovered, a division of Renaissance Downtowns, a wider and more efficient traffic circle will be a huge victory for area residents.

“It is a major project that the county is doing, so we welcome it,” she said. “From a community perspective, it will bring money back to the area and that, coupled with the zone changes, I see it as not just a victory symbolically on paper, but in the actual, physical form. We are excited.”