Quietly moving from rail to link 1

QueensLink, a proposal to turn the abandoned Rockaway Beach Rail Line into a new subway track surrounded by park space, released this rendering of its plan.

Near the end of 2019, in the wake of an MTA-released study that slapped an $8 billion price tag on a project to resurrect a defunct train line, QueensRail, a nonprofit group dedicated to the plan, quietly gave birth to a new proposal under a new name: QueensLink.

Months later Covid reared its head in the city and siderailed all talk about the rail’s future for over a year. QueensLink stayed mostly dormant.

But in May, the murmurs over the abandoned Rockaway Beach Rail Line began again. Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Rockaway Park) sent a pre-emptive request to the Biden administration for consideration in the infrastructure bill. Mayoral contenders Kathryn Garcia and Andrew Yang backed a conflicting plan to convert the 3.5-mile track stretching from Rego Park to Ozone Park into a park similar to Manhattan’s High Line.

Those events all set the stage for the QueensLink project to make a push against the narrative that the project is too expensive. The revamped project advocating for a subway line is back in the spotlight after releasing a study that counters the MTA’s eyebrow-raising $8.1 billion cost figure for a new subway with $3.4 to $3.7 billion.

“The MTA sandbagging this thing was really the narrative that needed to cut through all the noise,” said Andrew Lynch, QueensLink’s chief design officer.

But that narrative also doesn’t capture the scope of the QueensLink project either. The name change from QueensRail was meant to signify a new proposal not just for a new train but for parkspace and biking and pedestrian paths as well.

“People still look at us as the rail project, and we are, but we really do see that as only 50 percent of it. The other 50 percent is the park space,” Lynch said.

Starting from a Rego Park station, the train line would cut through the neighborhoods of Forest Park, Woodhaven and Ozone Park to join the existing A train route to Rockaway Park at Liberty Avenue. Lynch hopes to add parks in the proposal alongside the existing tracks where the space allows or potentially below them in areas like the stretch along 99th Street in Ozone Park that sits on top of a viaduct platform.

Lynch, a transit activist and cartographer, originally got involved in the project after reading about the debate between the QueensWay, the name for the park-only proposal for the tracks, and the QueensRail proposal, and writing a blog post that argued the two ideas should be combined. Shortly after, the executive director of Queens Rail, Rick Horan, reached out to him about helping to re-envision the project.

Together the team sought to move the idea away from being a new express train to JFK Airport to one aimed at the residents of Queens whose backyards the train would run alongside, Lynch said.

“You’re linking together this borough. You’re allowing people to get around their borough in a way that they couldn’t ever before,” Lynch said.

Lynch and Horan hired a consulting firm, Transportation Economics and Management Systems, to review the MTA’s cost estimate. TEMS’s review did not dispute the MTA’s $1.8 billion construction cost of the project, but found that the agency’s estimates on escalation and contingency factors were “out of line with industry standards.” Its estimate with those factors included is $3.4 to $3.7 billion total.

After releasing the report, Lynch said that now the group’s strategy is to try and build grassroots support for the idea to move forward.

The MTA denied the study’s conclusions, saying that the estimates are “at the low end of likely requirements from the Federal Transit Administration.”

Though QueensLink has gathered a contingent of legislative supporters including Pheffer Amato and Councilman Bob Holden (D-Middle Village), Borough President Donovan Richards recently said that he’s avoided favoring either the QueensWay or QueensLink plans. Though as a councilman Richards contributed discretionary funds to the TEMS study and said that he also has questions about the MTA estimate, he maintained that he saw both plans as good opportunities.

“I’m talking to both sides,” Richards said on Gotham Gazette’s “Max Politics Podcast,” adding that he would “love to see a combination. In a perfect world, we figure out how we do both.”

As the conversation continues, the group is trying to get more champions, volunteers and fundraising.

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