The delayed study into the feasibility of rebooting the long-abandoned Long Island Rail Road Rockaway Beach Line has inspired divergent comments from two interested parties.
Rick Horan is the director of the taskforce Queens Rail and Way.
Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Horan put together the Queens Rail and Way task force as an attempted compromise between the rail and park ideas, the latter of which is supported by the Queensway group.
The park plan has had more official backing in Albany and been planned in more detail.
In regard to the MTA study, Horan sounded pessimistic about both its processes and eventual results.
“The rail-line has been studied to death and everyone says to reactivate it,” Horan said, though many oppose the idea. “It’s a political problem. It’s not a money problem. It’s not a mechanical problem.”
As to the question of cost, Horan cited a document from 2001 called the JFK One-Seat Feasibility Final Report. In that report, which considered reactivating the Rockaway Line for convenient one-seat transportation to the airport before the AirTrain design was eventually chosen, Horan says, “the estimate for reconnecting the Rockaway Beach branch in 2001 was $250 million.” He said that dollar amount translates to about $380 million in present value.
He believes the park and transit line could coexist if the rail were constructed underground in strategic locations to mitigate noise, construction and other quality-of-life concerns for residents.
“The task force was a way of saying, ‘Hey look, we’re part of the same borough. Let’s figure this out in a way where this can benefit everybody,’” Horan said.
To this point, there hasn’t been a conversation between his group and Queensway, aside from their asking him to remove their copyrighted images from his website.
Penner, who is retired, offered differing conclusions about both the delayed report and the Rockaway Line as a whole, which he called “theoretical” at this stage of the process. One of his responsibilities at the DOT was evaluating proposals for potential funding, including working on feasibility studies similar to the one regarding the Rockaway Line.
“You have a red flag when your planning and feasibility study is delayed and not shared with the public,” Penner said on the phone. “This means they are not comfortable with the results.”
The original intended completion date on the study was June 2017. The study was then delayed until December 2017, then most recently to June 2018.
“I’d suspect the estimated cost may be 2 to 3 billion dollars,” Penner said, pointing out that this was much higher than initial estimates of $600 million.
He theorizes that the greater cost is one of the most significant reasons that the release of the study is being delayed. Penner thinks that it could be bad publicity in an election season, for candidates who supported the concept if the costs were proven obviously prohibitive, or even impossible, by the study.
But the argument for rail restoration in fact not being feasible due to cost is far more complicated than a simple bottom line. There is an entire costly, and complicated, procedure to projects of this magnitude getting funding from the city. And Penner argues that once the implications of these essential steps are considered, the likelihood of completion becomes even more remote.
Penner broke down this process into three understandable steps.
The first involves the feasibility study, which has not been made public.
Next comes an environmental review, which requires hiring an outside firm to conduct research.
Lastly there’s the completion of the environmental review, along with preliminary design and engineering for at least 30 percent of the project.
Penner says that these steps in the process require between $5 to $10 million dollars to complete, and they also constitute 5 percent of the project cost. He adds that there hasn’t been any convincing indication that a local representative will be able to gather the necessary momentum around the project to raise even that amount of money. Furthermore Penner argued that the fact none among Gov. Cuomo, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), or Mayor de Blasio have personally appeared in Queens alongside a local representative to stump for the Rockaway Line lent credence to a pessimistic read on the project’s chances.
“I have nothing against the project, it looks great on paper,” Penner said, while adding the reactivation of the Rockaway Line, in reality, is unlikely for these and other reasons. “But the reality is ... the project would be completed in 2030 if all the planets aligned.”
As to the actual report, Penner expressed confidence that it would be thorough and accurate despite being delayed. But he did provide a particular hint for evaluating the feasibility of the overall project in the context of the study.
“If the final report does not contain interim milestones, it may not be helpful [as it could be],” Penner explained. “Without attainable goals the project will collect dust.”
Those goals refer to that aforementioned three-step process. If there is not a clear path to getting the Rockaway Line from the feasibility study to the environmental review, then the project may not evolve beyond being an idea.
The MTA was contacted but opted not to provide comment at this time.