Even as opponents of both projects keep their voices in the mix, proposals to reactivate the Rockaway Beach Long Island Rail Road line, or convert the right of way into a park similar to Manhattan’s High Line, are both moving forward.
The plan to bring trains, or some form of transit, back to the line, which was abandoned in 1962, got support from two high-ranking officials last week.
Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) and Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica), who both represent portions of southern Queens, gave firm endorsements to the rail plan and sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood asking that a portion of the $60 billion in the relief bill for Hurricane Sandy be put toward studying rail reactivation along the right of way.
Why that money? Jeffries said some of it was earmarked specifically toward studying infrastructure and transit development for communities affected by the storm, and since the rail line would serve Howard Beach, Broad Channel and the Rockaways — all hit hard by Sandy’s storm surge — it would meet the criteria.
“This falls squarely within that,” he explained. “These communities are recovering from the storm and this would be part of that recovery.”
Though a train is the most common idea proposed for the line, Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park) noted that there were a number of options, including light rail and even bus service, similar to the Transitway system in Ottawa, Canada, where buses run along a dedicated route that connects the downtown portion of the city to neighborhoods farther away.
“We have a number of options we could look at,” he said. “That’s why we need a study done.”
Goldfeder said reactivating transit would not just be a boon for the Rockaways and southern Queens, but for the entire borough because it would better connect those areas to other parts, such as Astoria, Flushing and Bayside, which are typically more difficult to get to.
It would also take some cars off congested Woodhaven Boulevard, supporters argue.
“We want to get out of our cars,” said Dolores Orr, chairwoman of Community Board 14, which includes the Rockaways. “The mayor wants us to get out of our cars. But we need an alternative.”
Orr, who has lived in Rockaway all her life, said she remembers when the LIRR ran along the line.
“It took 40 minutes to get to Manhattan,” she said. In the meantime, The Trust for Public Land, the parks advocacy group given money from the state to study the potential for a High Line-like “Queensway” project, has moved ahead with those plans.
Marc Matsil, New York State director for TPL, said more than 40 firms responded to a request for proposals to conduct a feasibility study for the Queensway.
“We are looking for firms with ecological expertise,” Matsil explained. “The goal of the study is to look at the structures in place, their stability and test ground water and soil samples.”
TPL and the firms interested will be visiting the rail line for a tour this week.
Matsil dismissed talk of reactivating the railway, pointing to studies from the 1990s, when the line was eyed for the JFK AirTrain, that argued transit was not financially feasible and would not be used by residents in southern Queens.
But supporters of the rail said those studies are out of date and the situation is different now, especially since the opening of Resorts World New York City Casino and increased development in the Rockaways, such as Arverne By The Sea. Meeks also believes Sandy changed everything.
“The biggest difference now is Sandy,” he explained. “Restoring the rail line would speed up the pace of recovery for residents and local businesses and create hundreds of jobs while laying the foundation for a transportation network that accommodates future growth.”
Opponents of the rail line noted the cost of reactivating service would be astronomical and is part of the reason it isn’t feasible. Meeks said the cost could not be determined yet.
“A study will tell us that,” he said.
The right of way that runs through Forest Park, adjacent to Victory Field, is actually parkland, and any reactivation of transit would require the city to alienate that section of the park, with state approval. Doing so will require the city go through a process similar to that currently being undertaken by the United States Tennis Association in its plan to expand its Flushing Meadows campus. That process has led to a number of contentious debates on community boards including CB 9, which includes a significant section of the Rockaway line.
Outgoing CB 9 Chairwoman Andrea Crawford, who supports the Queensway concept, noted her board would have to take a vote on alienating parkland for it. That, especially after the tough USTA vote the board took last month, would be a hard push, she said.
But community board votes are only advisory, supporters of the rail plan point out.
In the meantime, opponents of both ideas are trying to keep their voices heard as both plans moved forward.
Neil Giannelli, a resident of 98th Street in Woodhaven, which runs alongside the Rockaway LIRR right of way, said most of his neighbors are opposed to any development along the line.
At a meeting of CB 9 earlier this month, Giannelli said 230 signatures were collected from residents age 18 and older along the street between Park Lane South and Atlantic Avenue. Of those, four people supported the Queensway idea while 226 were opposed to any development along the old Rockaway line.
Nobody wanted a train.