For transportation and government junkies in New York, Friday evening — always the best time for bad news to drop — was chock full of surprises. A judge put a temporary kibosh on Mayor Bloomberg’s Outer Borough street hail plan while Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the current iteration of his convention center/casino complex had died. We’ll get to the taxi story later; right now, I want to look at the second chances the city and state will have in Queens.
The story, as we know, was one of backroom dealings and fast promises. During his State of the State speech, Gov. Andrew Cuomo dropped a bombshell. Genting had agreed to the framework of a deal that, pending a constitutional amendment, would have allowed them to build a massive convention center and casino complex in the Ozone Park area. The Javits Center would have been knocked down for a denser, mixed use development, and the plan would have brought table gambling and larger trade shows to New York City.
Transportation was vaguely a part of the plan as well. Genting had promised upgrades, but details were scarce. Transit advocates had hoped to see an ambitious plan to reactivate the LIRR’s dormant Rockaway Beach Branch line while whispers surrounding a super express A train had everyone worrying. Now, it seems, we’ll get a reprieve and a do-over as the plan has collapsed.
During a radio interview on WOR on Friday with former Gov. David Paterson, Cuomo dropped the news. “The conversations haven’t really worked out,” he said. Genting, which pledged to compete for any future project, issued a similar statement. “Uncertainties and difficulties regarding the constitutional amendment, competitive landscape, tax rate and infrastructure support made any decision difficult,” the casino giant said in a statement.
With the Genting proposal in its current form dead, Cuomo will press forward with a proper competition. “They,” he said of the casino industry, “all want to come to New York, and they all have all sorts of exciting ideas — ideas that we didn’t even think of. They want to be here. They’re excited.” According to The Wall Street Journal, interested parties include MGM Resorts, Caesars and Las Vegas Sands as well as Genting.
Despite the fact that industry giants are skeptical of plans to build oversized convention centers anywhere, let alone miles away from the city’s main attractions, Cuomo seems intent to move forward with some sort of competition. This gives transportation advocates to have a louder say, and they need to have a louder say. Any plan to build an attraction center in an area underserved by transit cannot simply rely on vague promises of future improvements. Whichever company wins the competition must make concrete promises to improve rail access to the area.
So what should those improvements be? The Rockaway Beach Branch activation deserves a serious look from everyone involved. It can provide a high-speed link to the convention center and a faster ride for people from parts of Queens who are far from the job centers of Manhattan. Improvements in service along the A line should also be a requirement, and a cohesive effort to streamline bus service in that area of Queens should be on the table as well. The company that wins should also be required to finance these improvements and subsidize some of the operating costs that will result from higher demand. If the area is as lucrative as Cuomo promises it to be, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Perhaps I’m aiming too high here. Perhaps a private developer won’t be so keen on entering the area with these requirements. Still, a convention center and a casino in Ozone Park would be truly disruptive to the area and would present an opportunity to improve transit in an neighborhood that needs these improvements. We can’t let that chance slip away. Who knows when it will come around again?