A driver fell asleep at the wheel, lost control of his car, flipped over an embankment on Route 25 and crashed into the Orient Village Cemetery last Thursday evening, wiping out about 20 monuments. (See story, page 1.) Fortunately no one was seriously injured, including, miraculously, the driver.
Almost before the dust had settled in the cemetery — no exaggeration — word spread that the driver, a young man from Sound Beach, had just gotten off the ferry, returning from a Connecticut casino, where he'd been up all night gambling the night before.
Fact or fiction? Officials wouldn't confirm for us, on the record, that the man said he'd been up gambling all night. In fact, Ethel Terry of Orient Fire Department, the EMT in charge at the scene, denied the man said such a thing. But two officials recounted that he said exactly that. They, however, asked not to be identified by name in the paper. They're not supposed to talk to the press about things people involved in accidents say to them, they said.
The driver of the car didn't want to talk to us, either. He didn't return several messages left on his answering machine.
Because we could confirm it only with sources willing to speak off the record, associate editor Eileen Duffy and I grappled with whether to report that the man was coming from the ferry and said he'd been up all night gambling the night before. I hate reporting based on anonymous sources, though sometimes I realize there's no choice. It's got to be corroborated in some way and I've got to be thoroughly convinced of the source's veracity before I'll go forward with it. I made that decision here.
The people involved in Southold Citizens for Safe Roads immediately saw this incident as a prime example of everything wrong with the Orient ferry, and staged a rally at the cemetery Saturday evening, with signs posing the grim question, "What if these [the headstones] had been children?" The cemetery is right across the road from the elementary school, after all, where soccer practice was just getting under way when the crash occurred. He could have just as easily veered off the road and into the school parking lot.
Should Cross Sound Ferry be held accountable for irresponsible behavior of its customers? I think not — at least no more than any other business.
But I do believe the ferry company should be held accountable for the impact of its operations on our local roads. And there has been an impact.
This much is clear: Cross Sound Ferry cannot be allowed to continue unfettered expansion at its Orient terminal. And that's exactly what will happen if the town doesn't step in and limit it. Why? The demand for ferry service is going to increase, quite dramatically in fact, because of what's going on just across the Sound.
Both Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are in the process of major expansions that will add more than a couple thousand new hotel rooms. Mohegan Sun alone is planning a second, new 100,000-square-foot casino, with 2,000 slot machines, nearly doubling its operation and almost matching that of Foxwoods. In addition, Mohegan Sun is building a new 1,500-room hotel, a 10,000-seat arena, a 100,000-square-foot convention center and 900,000 square feet of retail space and restaurants.
A brand-new $1 billion casino is in the works just across the Connecticut border, in West Warwick, R.I., a partnership of the Narragansett Indians and Harrah's Entertainment.
Then there's the $1.6 billion entertainment center — including a 1.85 million-square-foot theme park, a 6,000-seat amphitheater and 4,200 hotel rooms — proposed for nearby Preston, Conn., by Utopia Studios, which says it expects to attract 10 million visitors per year.
The indoor auto racing track proposed for Plainfield, Conn., seems stalled, for now. The town changed its mind — and its zoning — and the developer filed suit two weeks ago. If the developer wins, the possibility of a NASCAR track will again be added to the mix.
Southeastern Connecticut's a happening place.
The existing casino operations have had traffic impacts there, and Connecticut officials are trying to deal with what's going to happen to their roadways — particularly the clogged I-95 — as a result of casino expansions, the new casino in Rhode Island, and the huge theme park/entertainment center. Connecticut state senator Bill Finch is quoted in a recent article in the Fairfield County Business Journal: "Whatever we do in Connecticut, it's going to have an impact on traffic if we don't have alternate means of transportation for all of these things. We're not going to grow with the current infrastructure we have."
Alternate means of transportation? The planners' buzzword is "intermodal." That includes trains, buses, and — yes — ferry service. That's why Cross Sound Ferry got a federal highway administration grant to improve its New London facilities.
State, county and local officials in Connecticut embrace all the development because of the economic benefits it brings. Connecticut officials are working to address casino traffic impacts "regionally." But their regional approach stops at the state line — unlike the traffic impacts, which are delivered to our doorstep by Cross Sound Ferry. Not only are they unmindful of traffic impacts on the other side of the Sound, they are increasingly looking at ferry transportation as a means of getting cars off their clogged interstate. And they're even getting assistance from the federal government to make that happen.
Who's looking out for the North Fork? Are traffic impacts here even being considered in the environmental impact statements and traffic studies being prepared in connection with these projects? Or is Southold Town on its own?