OPINION: QueensWay or revived rail link are both OK, but the status quo isn’t

Eagle  file photo by Jonathan Sperling.

Eagle file photo by Jonathan Sperling.

By Raanan Geberer

Ever since the Long Island Rail Road’s Rockaway Beach Branch was discontinued in 1962 due to low ridership, various proposals for the right-of-way have been floated, but none have taken root. Meanwhile, the right-of-way has continued to deteriorate, with trees growing between the wooden railway ties and weeds covering the rusty tracks.

In the past 10 years or so, two proposals for the line have competed for public dollars and the public eye. One, known as the QueensWay project, is backed by the powerful Trust for Public Land. It would establish a long, narrow elevated park like the High Line in Manhattan, with bike and walking paths. Its backers point out that Queens lacks a north-south corridor, and the Queensway could unite several neighboring communities. 

The second is to rebuild the right-of-way and to run either subway or LIRR service from Howard Beach, where it would connect with the present-day Rockaway line, to either the subway system’s Queens Boulevard line or the LIRR’s main line at Rego Park. Either way would give Rockaway riders a quicker route to Midtown Manhattan than the current A train.

Both the QueensWay and the transit project have their pluses and minuses. Both deserve to be considered, and perhaps they could be combined in some way.

In general, people who live close to the unused rail line, who didn’t like the prospect of more noise, prefer the park alternative, while Rockaway residents, who wanted a quicker route to Manhattan, prefer to revive train service. In the past few years, it seemed as if the QueensWay proposal had the edge. Now, however, with the release of a new study commissioned by the MTA, it looks like the railway-subway option is open again.

The study by Systra, an international rail-public transport engineering and consulting group, was finished in 2018 but was just made public in October by the MTA. It says that if the line were reopened as part of the LIRR, it would provide a 30-minute ride between Howard Beach and Penn Station and attract 11,000 riders every weekday. If it’s part of the subway system, it would provide a 45-minute commute from Howard Beach to Herald Square and would attract 47,000 riders every weekday.  Currently, the trip by subway takes 52 minutes.

In either case, the line would have to be reconstructed with new tracks, a third rail and electrical substations. Both options would bypass Brooklyn entirely, although Rockaway transit riders who want to go to Central or Downtown Brooklyn could transfer at Howard Beach for the A or C lines.

The cost to the MTA would be considerable, $6.7 billion for the LIRR option and $8.1 billion for the subway option (more because a connecting tunnel to the Queens Boulevard line would have to be built).  Either option is more than it cost to build the first phase of the Second Avenue subway, which was $4.5 billion. 

But Assemblymember Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Queens) told qns.com that cost “cannot be an obstacle. We are talking about a real opportunity to give time back to commuters’ lives.” Amato has been a longtime advocate of the rapid transit option. And back in 2014, transit activist Allan Rosen testified at an MTA hearing that “next to Staten Island, Queens has the worst public transit in the city” and the right-of-way “must never become QueensWay, which will only be used by a couple of hundred daily bicycle riders during, perhaps, 150 days a year.” 

The pro-QueensWay forces haven’t been idle, however. In a letter to the MTA after the transit agency’s report on the rail and subway options, Friends of the QueensWay said that using the right-of-way for mass transit would result in the loss of seven acres of parkland and would also require the relocation of several recreational facilities, including the Forest Hills and Ridgewood-Glendale Little League fields. “Significant noise would distract Metropolitan Campus students and bother thousands of local residents,” said the letter, which was quoted in the Forest Hills Post.

Both concepts are admirable, and both would be preferable to just letting the line continue to deteriorate and become a litter-strewn, weed-choked wasteland. That’s apparently what some owners of neighboring houses want, or at least wanted at one time. In 2013, Woodhaven resident Neil Gianelli was all over Queens-based websites, saying that both options would bring strangers to the neighborhood, deflate property values and create noise. Apparently, such people think of the right-of-way as their own backyard (and some homeowners have reportedly extended fences onto the right-of-way), but it ain’t so.

One compromise option might be to have a train going through the cut but covering it with a deck covered with grass and trees that would serve as a park. This would be the best option, but it would almost certainly be move expensive. Another might be a relatively noiseless, unobtrusive light rail line with a strip of parkland or a bicycle-walking path alongside it. I proposed this idea in a guest op-ed in the Queens Chronicle (this, of course, was before the introduction of the Queens edition of the Eagle) in 2014. An online reader called “Donut” objected to this idea, but his argument was full of holes.

In the end, a railroad line, a subway line, a park or a “combination of the two” (as Janis Joplin would say) would all be acceptable. Leaving the Rockaway right-of-way as is to deteriorate even further and possibly pose a hazard to those who attempt to walk it – that’s not acceptable!