For the past five decades, no one paid much attention to the remains of the abandoned railway that used to run the Long Island Rail Road Rockaway Beach Branch, that is, until recently. This vacant 3.5-mile right-of-way (ROW) between Rego Park and the Rockaways, which last served passengers in 1962, is being re-imagined by some as a greenway, while others want to bring it back as a reactivated rail line.
For years, pro-park advocates (who have dubbed the ROW the “QueensWay”) have been pushing to transform 3.5 miles of the track from Rego Park to Ozone Park into an elevated linear park and multi-use path, inspired by the success of the High Line in Chelsea. Last month, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) took the idea a step forward by announcing a request for proposal (RFP) for a feasibility study. Backed by a $500K grant from Governor Cuomo (a Queens native), TPL seeks to examine the planning, design and engineering required to turn this ROW into a park.
Others have envisioned a different reuse that would bring rail back to the right-of-way, specifically an extension of the R train from the 63rd Street Rego Park station toward Howard Beach and JFK International Airport.
While the greenway proposal moves forward with the backing of Governor Cuomo’s grant, Congressmen Hakeem Jeffries and Greg Meeks, as well as Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, argue that if tax dollars will be used to study an open space option, then rail reactivation must also be studied.
A member of Community Board 14, which serves the neighborhoods of the Rockaways, describes an upgrade in rail service for Queens residents a “truly shovel ready job.” This plan envisions the re-connection of the northern part of the Rockaway Beach line with its southern portion, which is used today via the A train into the Rockaways. This would require establishing subway tracks on the 3.5 mile stretch between the Aqueduct and the Rego Park station, thus linking the A train to the Queens Boulevard lines.
Reactivating the ROW as a rail line would effectively fill the transit gap between northern and southern Queens. Today, if you wanted to ride from the Rockaways to Flushing, you’d have to travel through Manhattan — or switch to the G Train — and then to the 7 Train. With an R Train extension on a restored ROW, it would take only 40 minutes to get from the Rockaway Peninsula to Penn Station— like it did in the 1950s when the line was still active. Today, the only option Rockaway commuters have to get into Manhattan is via the A line, which can take over an hour.
Additionally, because Howard Beach, Broad Channel and the Rockaways are still suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a rail line could help motivate development and recovery. Jeffries, Meeks and Goldfeder recently asked Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood to direct a portion of the state’s federal Sandy recovery aid toward studying rail reactivation on the Rockaway Beach Branch. Assemblyman Goldfelder recognizes that there are a number of options outside of reactivating the line as a branch of the LIRR, including light rail or bus service- which is why he believes a study should be done.
Restoring rail on the ROW doesn’t just improve mass transit connections in Queens and boost economic activity post-Sandy; it could also help ease congestion on heavily-trafficked roads such as Cross Bay Boulevard and Woodhaven Boulevard — Queens’ most dangerous road for pedestrians.
A number of other ideas to reactivate passenger service using this defunct right-of-way continue to circulate. The Rockaway Subcommittee of the Regional Rail Working Group, long-time advocates for rail reactivation, have proposed a cross-platform transfer at Aqueduct station to provide convenient transfers to Downtown Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan using the A train, as well as a connection between the Long Island Rail Road tracks to JFK International Airport’s Air Train right-of-way, which could, in theory, allow LIRR trains to serve the six airport terminal stations providing a one-seat ride between the airport and Penn Station.
Whether the ROW is reused as a greenway or for transit, both options could benefit those living in the area by easing congestion on dangerous roads, spurring economic development and offering greater transportation options. The residents of Queens deserve a comprehensive study, like the one proposed by Jeffries, Meeks and Goldfelder, to determine which option would benefit communities more.