Wrestling the rail option away from QueensWayBy
Over the past six years following the ins and outs of transit policy in New York City, I’ve read nearly every article about trains, buses, taxis, roads, bikes and everything in between published in all of this great city’s illustrious daily newspapers. Some do a better job than others of covering the policies behind transportation and the lack of political support for adequately funding transit. Others treat the transit planning process and transit news as a game of “Gotcha” populist journalism where the MTA is the big bad guy and the rest of us are just getting our proverbial pockets picked. In other words, coverage is uneven.
Where coverage is not uneven — and, in fact, is often quite glowing — is when the Next Big Thing arrives. Now that Chelsea’s High Line is so over, the Next Big Thing is in Queens, and it’s the QueensWay. I’ve burned a lot of pixels speaking out against the QueensWay plan lately. It’s the gimmicky idea to turn a 3.5-mile rail right-of-way into a park. I want rails-to-trails initiatives to disappear and would prefer to see a renewed effort to reactive the Rockaway Beach Branch line. In the aftermath of Sandy and with space for transit at such a premium in New York City, giving upon a dedicated, if disused, right of way that could be reactivated is a major mistake.
That’s not, however, how The Times sees it. I’m a big fan of The Gray Lady. Mocking Twitter account aside, I read The Times every day, and I usually find their coverage of most issues to be on target. This article, however, has left me both speechless and full of words. It’s a glowing profile of the QueensWay effort that simply and utterly dismisses the idea of rail as though it were the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. Shall we dive in?
It has been abandoned for five decades, a railway relic that once served Queens passengers on the old Rockaway Beach branch of the Long Island Rail Road. For all those years, no one paid much notice to the ghostly tracks, long overgrown with trees and vines, as they ran silently behind tidy houses in Rego Park, dipped through ravines in Forest Park and hovered above big-box stores in Glendale.
That is, until the High Line expanded the possibilities of a public park.
Now, the three-and-a-half-mile stretch of rusty train track in central Queens is being reconceived as the “QueensWay,” a would-be linear park for walkers and bicyclists in an area desperate for more parkland and, with the potential for art installations, performances and adjacent restaurants, a draw for tourists interested in sampling the famously diverse borough.
That wascally welic of a wailway. Five decades! Fifty years! Completely abandoned. No one — except for those cranks who have long called for its return to service — has paid it any attention. But don’t worry: The High Line will save it. After all, as it is similarly located in a booming area within walking distance to major city tourist attractions as the High Line is in Chelsea, millions of tourists will be sure to flock to a park that isn’t near anything and runs through a ditch for most of its 3.5 miles.
Lisa Foderaro solders on…
“It’s Queens’s turn,” said Will Rogers, president and chief executive officer of the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit group that has joined local residents in promoting the idea. “The High Line led to the redefinition of the neighborhoods in Manhattan, whereas the QueensWay will be defined by the neighborhoods it passes through. Essentially, it will be a cultural trail.”
The involvement of the Trust for Public Land, which has 36 offices nationwide, including in Manhattan, has given the project new momentum, bolstering the efforts of the Friends of the QueensWay, a group with about 2,500 supporters. It did not hurt that the trust hired Adrian Benepe, who recently stepped down as the New York City parks commissioner.
Last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a native of Queens, awarded the trust a $467,000 environmental protection grant through the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The grant will help pay for a community planning survey and a feasibility study that will include environmental, engineering and financial assessments of the project, including consideration of the condition of the railway’s trestles, bridges and embankments.
Setting aside my snarky retort for a minute, we come across a major problem I have with the political approach to the QueensWay folk. The government backing is incredible. The Trust for Public Land has led rails-to-trails efforts in places as diverse as Chicago, Toledo and Florida. Furthermore, from Adrian Benepe who has the ear of city leaders to Gov. Cuomo’s decision to award the Trust with nearly $500,000 to study the QueensWay proposal, New York is welcoming this idea with open arms. Where’s the competing grant to study reactivating the rail line though? This feasibility study will explore turning this ROW into a park, but it won’t offer up what should be Plan A: rail.
And then we get to the graphs that had me steaming:
But bringing the park to fruition will not be easy. The modest neighborhoods and light industrial areas through which the abandoned rail line passes cannot provide the tens of millions of dollars that were raised privately by Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit group managing the construction and maintenance of the elevated park on Manhattan’s West Side.
Nor is everyone on the same page about the Queens railway’s destiny; at least one elected official has called for a simultaneous study of reviving the rail line to provide better train service to the increasingly popular Rockaway beaches, damaged as they might be in the short term by Hurricane Sandy. (Mr. Benepe, who is well schooled in community opposition, imagined the potential horror of nearby homeowners at the prospect of the train line’s rumbling to life again.)
The first paragraph is self-explanatory. It can’t replicate the success of the High Line because it’s not the High Line. It connects Ozone Park to Forest Hills, and it’s not, as I mentioned, in an area to which tourists are flocking. It is, however, in an area that could use some faster rail options, but who wants that? Certainly not a bunch of homeowners who knowingly purchased houses that back up on a rail line’s right of way. Just think of that “potential horror” — a parenthetical one at that — of better access to Manhattan and a faster ride to the city’s job centers. What a nightmare.
The best part though is the kicker graph:
Unlike the High Line, the QueensWay would welcome bicycles. While the trestles are relatively narrow, long stretches are wide enough — up to 25 feet — to accommodate walkers and bicyclists. New bike paths could connect the park to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to the north, as well as an existing bikeway in Jamaica Bay to the south. About 250,000 residents live within a mile of the proposed park, and its backers see all kinds of ancillary benefits, from health to traffic. “That’s a lot of carbon footprint,” said Marc Matsil, the trust’s New York state director.
“That’s a lot of carbon footprint.” What the *&!% does that even mean, Marc Matsil? The QueensWay was provide ancillary biking benefits at most as it’s generally, in my opinion, a bit too far from the city to be a part of bike commuters’ routes. It would be for mainly recreational biking and weekend strolling if it’s used as much as its proponents claim it will.
We live in a post-Sandy New York, one in which a state panel recently called for an increased investment in our transportation infrastructure. We have a dormant right of way — a very valuable one in a city that doesn’t have too many underutilized rail corridors or much open space — just sitting there waiting for rail. Before we turn it over to a rails-for-trails group that wants to build a novelty act in the middle of Queens, we have to be sure we can’t reclaim this ROW for rails. Right now, rail is a relic, an inconvenience and something that would run literally through a bunch of NIMBYs’ backyards. It will take a concerted effort to wrest this away from the QueensWay crowd, but that effort should not and would not be in vain.