Over the past few months, while I’ve maintained a skeptical view of the proposed QueensWay park that would likely usher in the end of any hopes to restore rail to the LIRR’s old Rockaway Beach Branch line, I’ve had some productive conversations with proponents of the park. I can’t speak for all of the rails-to-trails advocates in Queens, but those I’ve spoken with generally want the same thing I do. They want to see improved transit options, safer streets with fewer cars and efforts to prioritize pedestrian safety.
The difference between my view and theirs is a narrow one. They live with and around the defunct right of way and have largely written off any potential future rail use as impractical. Though it’s been a few decades since the last real assessment of the Rockaway Beach Branch line, certain members of Friends of the QueensWay believe it’s too far gone for rail use. It’s too expensive, too impractical, too impossible for rail. As the MTA gave the reactivation of the rail line just a nod in its latest 20-Year Needs Assessment, I’d rather see the cold hard study detailing costs and feasibility before writing it off good. After all, there’s a reason why rails-to-trails has so much public support while trails-to-rails doesn’t.
That said, there is still an element of NIMBYism in play here as many of the arguments for the park focus literally on backyards. One common refrain is that people who have built houses along the defunct right of way do not now want trains zooming by their homes at all hours of the day. I’m sympathetic in that I wouldn’t particularly enjoy that environment, but I didn’t build a home on abutting a rail line.
That’s hardly the worst of it though. Take, for instance, Assembly Rep. Mike Miller’s attempt at a compromise. On the surface, it seems a bit odd but perhaps a reasonable stab at a dialogue, but when you boil it down to its component parts, it looks more and more like a weird form of NIMBYism. Miller is right when he says that the QueensWay shouldn’t be compared with the High Line, and he’s right to cite concerns about long-term upgrade and maintenance costs. But here is the crux of his argument, and it’s a doozy:
Certain sections of the proposed QueensWay, specifically the area of the rail line that runs parallel to 98th Street in Woodhaven, will be adjacent to the backyards of nearly 200 homeowners. Although I have been informed by the Friends of QueensWay that they plan to build the QueensWay completely gated around the entrances and make it inaccessible at night, local residents should not be the ones burdened with the cost of building a more secure fence around their backyards to ensure the privacy and safety of their homes…
Many of the residents on 98th Street are OK with the rail line being underused and prefer it to stay that way. I also agree that the rail line from Park Lane South down to Atlantic Avenue be left untouched as to not interfere with the quality of life of local residents. Furthermore, as per the suggestion of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in its 20-year plan, the rail line from Atlantic Avenue to Rockaway Boulevard should be left as is and eventually be used as a connection for an express line connection to Manhattan.
After carefully balancing the potential positive impact of the QueensWay vs. the potential negative impact on certain local residents, I recommend the following:
- The QueensWay should be built only on the part of the rail line that stretches from Rego Park to Park Lane South.
- The rail line from Park Lane South to Atlantic Avenue should be left untouched so as to not interfere with the quality of life of local residents.
- The rail line from Atlantic Avenue to Rockaway Boulevard should also be left untouched, so it can eventually be used by the MTA as an express line connection into Manhattan.
Before we get into the electoral politics of this proposal, note the discrepancies between Miller’s idea for an “express line connection to Manhattan” and his plan to convert the right of way from Atlantic Ave. to Rockaway Boulevard — a span of a few blocks — into an express line. He doesn’t explain more, but I assume his route would involve tying the Rockaway Beach Branch into the LIRR’s Atlantic Ave. line. This would result in an express line to … Brooklyn? That essentially mirrors preexisting LIRR service and the A train? Without a massive investment, this route ain’t going to Manhattan.
Meanwhile, take a look at Miller’s district map, and notice the Rockaway Beach Branch right of way. His “compromise” proposal calls for a park through neighborhoods he doesn’t represent and calls for no action along the area from Park Lane South to Atlantic Ave. that cuts right through the heart of his district. Build this QueensWay in someone else’s backyard, he say. It’s not his problem! To Miller’s credit, he’s willing to cede three whole blocks in his district plus a school bus parking lot to a rail line that solves no one’s mobility concerns.
This is ultimately a nothing proposal designed instead to give Miller protection from irate constituents who want no part in a QueensWay running through their backyards. It makes me wonder though why other blocs in the city aren’t taking a more active role in this debate. The QueensWay decisions may have a physical impact on those who live near the ROW, but from a mobility perspective, the rail line has the potential to effect all New Yorkers. Who’s fighting for them?