When last I checked in on the Rockaway Beach Branch line toward the end of 2015, I had kinda sorta vowed to leave well enough alone. The debate has grown a bit toxic with park advocates fighting with proponents of rail reactivation who are fighting against proponents of Select Bus Service with motorists and NIMBYs hovering on the wings. But as Michael Corleone once bemoaned, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. The “they” this time is Assembly representative Phil Goldfeder, and the get is Assembly-approved dollars for a true study of the best uses of the fallow right of way.
For years, the one ask I’ve had for the Rockaway Beach Branch line is a refresh of a decades-old feasibility study to determine, based on current city growth patterns, whether reactivation would be feasible and at what cost. What we’ve gotten since this nascent effort to revitalize the right-of-way began was a one-sided study from a rails-to-trails advocacy group that was funded nearly entirely through New York taxpayer dollars. It was a rigged assessment from the start and ended with fanciful renderings and no realistic path forward for the so-called QueensWay linear park. Goldfeder is hoping to right that wrong.
In a budget passed by the state Assembly this week, the Assembly allocated funding for a feasibility study of rail reactivation and would direct the MTA to complete the study by March 1, 2017. It is, unfortunately, a one-house budget and it’s not clear if the State Senate’s measure will include similar funding (or if Gov. Andrew Cuomo would approve such a request). Still, it’s a sign that someone at least is thinking through this issue.
Goldfeder explained his support for the funding. “With so many families in Queens suffering through some of the longest commutes in the city, it’s important that we explore every option to improve transportation. A feasibility study of reactivation the Rockaway Beach Rail Line will do just that. This study will provide us with an accurate picture of the state of the line and show not just what it would cost to reactivate, but also the impact this would have on thousands of commuters in the community,” he said.
Goldfeder hopes that a study would provide a comprehensive overview of the state of the right of way. He wants a full assessment of the current condition of the infrastructure (which, in all honest, is not good) and he wants to understand the costs of reactivating the line for passenger service. We haven’t had a clear indication of these costs, potential ridership or the impact to the area in nearly two decades, and the last study was not well received by transit advocates or community activists who disputed its findings.
A rail use for this right of way seems like a long shot with many forces aligning against a plan, but it deserves a fair hearing. As I’ve noted in the past, money is the way to get that hearing. If the state does allocate the dollars, the MTA will follow through with a study. And then we’ll know if, in the late 2010s, there is a way forward for the Rockaway Beach Brance line or if this dream should be allowed to fade away while other, productive uses of the ROW are identified.