Re-activating the defunct Rockaway Beach Branch line could cost up to $8 billion dollars and a one-seat ride to JFK Airport using the once-and-perhaps-future LIRR right of way could run to nearly $20 billion, according to a long-awaited report the MTA released last month. If the MTA’s numbers are to be believed, this report may serve not as a rallying cry for advocates to push for rail reactivation but rather an indication that the MTA’s inability to manage costs will back-burner any transit use for this ROW for years to come. Without an obvious political champion pushing this project, one could be forgiven for believing the inflated costs to be almost intentional.
The history of the Rockaway Beach Branch line is a tortured one that I’ve covered extensively over the years. It’s one of those spaces that’s constantly in the cross-hairs of different groups, and nearly since the day after the misguided decision to end rail service in the early 1960s, various factions have tried to lay claim to the route. We’ve seen dreams of a new Rockaway Beach Branch rail line come and go, plans for one-seat rides to JFK live and die, and over the past decade, fights between the so-called QueensWay group that wants to convert these rails into trails and transit activists fighting for train service into underserved areas. Lately, the folks at The QueensLink have tried to bridge the gap, offering a plan for rail use of the ROW with added park space as well.
Amidst this battle, back in 2016, then-Assembly representative Phil Goldfeder secured state dollars for a study examination reactivation of the RBBL. The report was to be due by mid-2017, but the MTA failed to hit that deadline. Eventually, Systra delivered the report in September of 2018, but it languished out of view until Jose Martinez of The City came knocking in early October. Late last month, the MTA finally unveiled the full report in all its glory.
The report itself is extensive and broken into two phases. The first part [pdf]explores, in great detail, the 3.5 miles of unused right-of-way between Rego Park and Ozone Park where the line then meets up with today’s A train out to Howard Beach and beyond. Systra assessed reactivation via a spur off the LIRR’s Main Line and a New York City Transit spur from the Queens Boulevard line. I’m more intrigued by the subway option that the LIRR routing, but allow me to summarize both.
In each case, the underlying assumption appears to be that most of the current elevated structure — the old Rockaway Beach Branch viaduct — would have to be replaced entirely due to deterioration and modern safety standards, thus driving up costs. The LIRR routing is the cheaper choice but with lower ridership. Sending the Main Line down the Rockaway Beach Branch is projected to cost $6.7 billion and would include new stations at Rego Park, Parkside, Woodhaven, Ozone Park, Aqueduct and Howard Beach. Systra modeled frequencies of 15, 20 and 30 minutes and determined that around 10,800-11,200 riders per day would use the LIRR option with travel times from Howard Beach to Penn Station maxing out at around 25 minutes.
The New York City Transit option would include a spur off of the Queens Boulevard Line, approximately 4000 feet of tunneling and new stations at Parkside, Brooklyn Manor, Woodhaven and Ozone Park. As subway junkies know, the current Rego Park station along the Queens Boulevard line has tunnel provisions in place pointed toward the Rockaway Beach Branch right of way, and the report anticipates a mix of M and R trains serving the RBBL with 10-minute headways. Travel times from Howard Beach to Herald Square are estimated at around 45 minutes, and the RBBL could account for 47,000 subway riders per day. This project comes in at a cost of $8.102 billion. Needless to say, both of this plans carry prohibitively expensive price tags, but at least the subway option has a significantly lower cost-per-passenger than the LIRR plan.
The second part of the study examined using the RBBL to serve as a true one-seat ride from Manhattan right to the terminals at JFK Airport. You can browse this part of the report right here, but I must warn you that the costs make it an exercise in futility. To add on a one-seat JFK extension to the LIRR plan above would cost an additional $12 billion for a total of nearly $20 billion. Travel times range from 23 minutes to and from Manhattan with a stop only at Woodside to 30 minutes to and from Manhattan with local stops in between. Ridership estimates range from around 8000 per day to 15,000, and while the report is an intriguing read with alignment renderings fun to contemplate, the combination of the high price tag and lower ridership make this long-desired one-seat ride an academic exercise in futility rather than a viable plan.
Beyond the dollars and the ridership totals, it’s worth paging through the reports, not least to see how the plans are laid out, where stations are sited, and how the modeling anticipates ridership growth. The subway proposal has some challenges. Off the bat, Systra raises concerns that tunneling close to Queens buildings that abut the right of way could damage foundations, and the report calls for proper mitigation. Plus, as we know, certain non-park uses of the right of way will have to be reclaimed. And for what it’s worth, the report allows for joint park and rail usage including via a trail under the viaduct between 97th and Liberty Avenues, parallel to the tracks south of Fleet Street or via an elevated walkway through Forest Park. But none of it is impossible if only the costs were right.
And therein lies the rub. The costs are not right. Each option — the two JFK one-seat alignments north or south of the current Howard Beach A train stop, the LIRR reactivation and the subway extension — are budgeted with excessive cost padding. The subway proposal, for instance, features nearly $2.5 billion in soft costs, $1.2 billion in contingencies, and escalation factors totaling $2.7 billion. The raw construction is estimated to cost only $1.6 billion in 2016 dollars if the tunneling from the Queens Boulevard Line is cut-and-cover. QueensRail advocates who have been pushing the project believe the price tag is unnecessarily inflated and design-build could carve off billions from the soft costs. Still, once the dollars are out there, it’s hard to overcome the political problems these inflated figures create.
Ultimately, then, it’s easy to see this entire report as an exercise in futility and the one the MTA is keen to leave behind. The costs are far in excess of any money the MTA should be spending here, and reaction from all quarters reflects that concern and a healthy skepticism toward the accuracy of the MTA’s cost estimates. In an extensive piece for Crains New York exploring the current state of the rails-vs.-trails debate, Matthew Flamm spoke with former MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu. “It’s extremely high,” Horodniceanu said of the cost estimates. “Even though you have a tunnel, the estimate is way out of line.”
Horodniceanu told Flamm he felt construction should come with a price tag “at most” half of what the report predicted, and if the MTA has lost Michael Horodniceanu on cost projections, then they’ve really lost the thread.
I asked Stephen Smith of @MarketUrbanism for his view of the costs as well. Smith, a constant critic of the MTA’s profligate spending, said, “While $8 billion does seem high, even for the MTA in 2019, I think we all should have learned by now to never underestimate the MTA’s ability to spend money. Given the densities along the line, this route is going to be marginal in the best of cases with regards to cost, and we are nowhere near the best of cases, to say nothing of the fact that there’s no evidence that design-build will bring costs down to that. There is so much more lower-hanging fruit in Queens transit, whether it’s bringing the LIRR up to rapid transit standards, running the buses and subway more efficiently, or bringing down construction costs. This project isn’t going anywhere.”
I believe Smith is right. With Goldfeder out of office and his successor Stacey Pheffer Amato losing interest in the project, there is no natural champion even as the need for better rail connections through Queens and into the Rockaways are clearly needed to improve mobility in New York City. To make matters worse, City Council rep Karen Koslowitz, who thinks none of the intermediate stops carefully laid out in the report actually exist, has refused to support rail. “She has always been and will continue to be unalterably opposed to the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach branch,” a spokesman said to Crains New York York. “The neighborhood’s not going to get the benefit of converting it to a public transportation line, but the foundations are going to crack, and homes are going to shake.”
Even if the report details mitigation efforts the MTA could take, at great care and cost, to ensure foundations don’t crack and buildings don’t shake, this is a project without a champion and with a cost far in excess of reason. It’s a lesson in maintaining rail service over rights-of-way and not letting them grow fallow. And it’s a lesson in torpedoing a project an agency doesn’t want to do by inflating the price. New Yorkers will continue to dream and agitate for reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Branch, but until the dollars make sense and political support materializes, the case may sadly be closed.
NYCDOT has been unable to obtain approval of a $97 million Federal Transit Administration New Starts Full Funding grant agreement toward paying for the $231 million Phase 2 Woodhaven Blvd Bus Rapid Transit along the same corridor for four years and counting. You don’t have to work in the transit industry to know that even if the MTA considered being the project sponsor, the odds of obtaining a similar funding arrangement for $3.3 billion in federal against a $6.7 billion cost for reactivation of LIRR service or $4 billion against a $8.1 billion cost for reactivation via a subway connection to the Queens Blvd line are nonexistent.
There is no funding included in the $51 billion MTA 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Program for advancement of service on the old abandoned Rockaway Beach LIRR branch. The same is true for the current New York State April 1, 2019 -March 30, 2020 or NYC July 1, 2019 – June 30, 2020 municipal budgets. Don’t be surprised when this project is not included in the upcoming MTA Twenty Year Future Capital Needs Assessment Report. It is due to be released by the end of December 2020.
(Larry Penner previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY) .
I don’t know about you, but to me those numbers look inflated even by MTA inflated standards. I wonder if those numbers were intentionally inflated to essentially kill such a project. That’s how rail was removed from construction of the new Tapan Zee bridge.
There aren’t enough Rockland county residents working in Westchester to need trains. And everybody thinks the aiport is a big destination. It’s not. And any of these plans saves a few minutes over existing options. Spend the money someplace else.
At least this project would save people time. The LGA AirTrain will be longer journey.
You want to save people time, close LaGuardia. There will be less delays at Newark and JFK.
Where would the 30M+ annual passengers go?
Newark or JFK with some of them going to places like White Plains and Islip because there would be a few more flights from those airports.
How are you going to expand JFK & EWR. JFK is gate capped at 153 & two terminals have been demolished with a third planned for closure in a few years. Newark is overcrowded as it is & so delay prone, I don’t know how they could add that many more passengers before things come to a screeching halt.
Westchester only has 4-gates & cant handle that many flights as there are time & aircraft weight restrictions. Maybe Islip can pick up some of the slack, but how much is debatable as SWA has pulled some service & they are the primary carrier there.
8 billion dollars, which is what improving LaGuardia is costing, would buy a lot of expansion at the other two airports.
Assuming the $8-billion were to be used for this type of project, where could you go at each to expand capacity.
Rail across the Tappan Zee would be heavily used. More of an intercity than a commuter service, but that is fine.
There are better locations to run rail across the river, but we lost them all one by one. The best one currently hosts a walkway.
Pretty much. You’d think a project like this would be doable for $100 million a mile or so.
Nope, $2 billion a mile. SAS costs to lay rail and a few stations on an embankment.
It’s probably safe to say that they learned they don’t have to do things they don’t feel like doing if they “study” them and come up with a nonsensical conclusion.
$20B for the RBBL? That’s the US of A in a nutshell due to total bureaucratic red tape by the federal government in the past fifty plus years or so, all because of worker safety concerns, the impact of the environment, as well as the total financial mismanagement by all transit agencies across the nation.
What’s so sad it’s funny is that in the democratic socialist UK known for it’s red tape and higher worker safety standards than the US have built a new cross city subway line tunneling under the entire city of London at less than half the cost per mile that NYC Transit spends. That includes monitoring the foundations of 500 year old buildings for cracks and passing under and through countless other subway lines. The only conclusion i can draw is that NYC Transit is lining many many pockets and their construction process from design through construction is completely corrupted.
Quick comment about the new sight design: it feels unexpected for the captions to disappear when my cursor goes over the images.
I had to get used to it myself. I’ll see how it goes.
Why didn’t you interview Rick Horan or cite this article in Crain’s?
I linked to and quoted the Crains piece extensively. When I write specifically about the QueensRail group, I’ll speak to Rick, and Andrew informed some of the comments in my post on cost inflation. Why do you ask?
I realize that given the MTA’s other budget priorities, this whole project is pie in the sky, even at non-inflated prices, for many years to come. In the meantime, the narrative is of two opposing groups, one in favor of transit, and the other in favor of parks/trails. Why not have both? The ROW would make a cut-and-cover operation (relatively) inexpensive, and the trail/park could be built on top. Everybody wins. It would cost more than having one or the other, but it might make it more politically feasible some day.
So when will the MTA get costs under control? In Boston, all they had to do was fire and blacklist ONE contractor, and suddenly new contractors started bidding, bidding low, and coming bin under budget.
Please say more! Where can I read about this?
The priority for new lines should be to provide a subway stop within walking distance for those who do not currently enjoy such access. The MTA’s survival is at stake. The unlinked trip subsidy for buses is more than 4 times that for unlinked subway trips. The subsidy for subway trips is around 60 cents. This means that a fairly modest fare increase could bring subway operations to a nearly 100% fare recovery rate.
Too many proposed subway expansions don’t address this issue. The RBBL is a prime example. Even in Mr. Goldfeder’s 23rd Assembly District. 49.9% of its residents already live within 1/2 mile of a subway stop. The RBBL would not change that. The only improvement would be for the 9.9% of the residents who live between 0.1 and 0.2 miles from a subway stop. That percentage would increase to 10.2%. That’s a lot of money to save 0.3% of the residents a only few steps in their current walk to the subway.
The issue with the RBBL is it would link south western queens to Queens Boulevard, which would be a major coup, cutting the reliance on vehicle traffic along the 3 major arteries (Woodhaven, 111th Street, Lefferts) and also give people another option to avoid the dreadful VWE. The people pushing Queens link want a viable intra-borough subway, the people opposing it see it as another line into Manhattan serving people already with a line into Manhattan.
More than 50% of Queens residents live more than 1/2 mile walking distance to a subway train. I suggest transit expansions be directed towards decreasing this number before embarking on making travel between north and south Queens easier.
The Terminal Moraine divides north and south Queens. The two areas developed independently. There’s relatively little travel demand between north and south. The southern section developed first as an extension of Brooklyn, via the LIRR, plank roads and the elevated lines which ran/run east-west. The northern section didn’t develop until much later. The transit provided by the LIRR and subway lines ran east-west.
There was a north-south transit proposal back in 1913. It was for a shipping canal along what’s now the VWE and Flushing Meadow Park. The plan also called for filling in the East River. It received state funding for a study, like the RBBL. One difference is that the governor whose signature authorized that study was impeached and removed from office.
You’ll have a better and faster route to The Bronx from the Rockaways. It will be (H) –> Triboro RX or (A) –> (H) –> Triboro RX.
A one-stop ride was part of the RPA’s recommendation for planning JFK’s growth and helping to make it into a world class airport. In that sense, this study is important. The benefit to Queens makes this proposal a no-brainer but for the price tag. Given the governor’s use of public/private funding for transportation projects, I wonder if a private company could be given the contract to build up the line as a “people mover” from JFK, using LIRR compatible sets. The state could guarantee right-of-way/takings and other build-up legal clearances – perhaps even post-build-up maintenance. Conceivably, the “people mover” could operate to Penn Station, Grand Central Station (once access opens) and Atlantic Terminal. The key would be to let the company use its own contractors to build and charge its own fare for a fixed number of years. After the line is built, the state can build any stops along the new line and run an LIRR train set from Rockaway and through Queens. I’m a Queens native living in Northern Virginia, where a private company built out the HOV. Not a perfect relationship, but worth considering.
There already is a people mover from the one stop ride to Manhattan. Even you do send LIRR trains all the way to the airport, most people will be transferring to the existing people mover anyway.
At the sake of sounding repetitive, I echo everyone else’s comments here, yes, the costs are high. Absurdly high. Furthermore, the ridership estimates seem low, especially for the subway option. I’m curious to what extent, if any, future zoning changes were considered, because it’s only a matter of time before this mayor, or a future mayor, will look at the low-density character of some of the neighborhoods that the RBB passes through and see them as ripe for upzoning and redevelopment. And as we have already seen for the past several decades, arguably since the Dual Contracts era of subway construction, there is no concerted and coordinated effort to marry new housing development with transit expansion in NYC. Obviously, this a huge consequence of having the city control local zoning while the state controls rail transit.
In this environment, I would make a strong case for another alternative – preserving the RBB right-of-way. If we can’t build a passenger rail line on it at this time, so be it. Then there should not be a park on it either. If a park is allowed to proceed, we will forever lose a precious rail ROW that can never be replaced. We may have to wait a generation or two, but I strongly believe that it’s only a matter of time that the RBB and other abandoned rail corridors around the city will look more and more appealing for passenger rail development. We are already seeing this as the RPA’s Triboro proposal for the New York Connecting Railroad line seems to be gathering some momentum, and former City Councilwoman Crowley’s concept for light rail on the Lower Montauk Branch is in the news.
As for the RBB, I propose going one small step at this time. A proper land survey should be undertaken to determine the precise boundaries of the ROW, and precisely identify those areas of illegal encroachment by residential and commercial uses. Following that, measures should be taken to claw back the illegally seized land, which over time will allow for a buffer to develop between those properties and the ROW. This will make it easier to blunt future opposition based on noise and visual impacts.
Finally, it should be stated the subway option has a major flaw that will need to be addressed if a future determination is made to pursue that choice. There are operational and capacity implications with sending one of the Queens Boulevard Line local services down the RBB. It makes the case stronger for the development of an additional east-west trunk line in Queens to the 63rd Street Tunnel, and eventually down lower Second Avenue, as envisioned since the middle of the 20th Century. What shape it takes remains to be seen, but future growth projections make it unavoidable to pursue some kind of big ticket project in Queens in the future.
In the early 1980’s when the cost of subway rail transit grew to be more than 1-million per mile – my esteemed knowledgeable transportation professor at graduate school then said that many worthwhile transit projects could not be built. I know that it is fashionable to bash the MTA, scream about cost-over-runs – but some things simply cost a heck of a lot of money to build. Even if the $ 8-billion dollar is inflated and it is said that the project could be done for “half” – that is still $ 4-billion dollars with estimates ranging from a) 10,800-11,200 riders per day would use the LIRR option, or b) 8,000 per day to 15,000 riders using an LIRR option to Howard Beach, and c) using a mix of M and R trains serving the RBBL with 10-minute head-ways could account for 47,000 subway riders per day. That is still a heck of a lot of money.
Why couldn’t the city build the LIRR option to JFK using airport money? Back in the 80s they proposed using the RBBL as a busway, a non-starter. But as a rail line with 15 minute headways it could make sense, since you wouldn’t have the problem of buses tumbling off an embankment into someone’s house.
With PFCs limited to $4.50, you could pull in about $300,000,000 annually to build the thing to the airport, and connect it to Grand Central or Penn Station. Building stops along the reactivated rail line would cost the state or city since you cannot use PFCs for that.
Why did they ever let a RAIL LINE from midtown direct to within a mile of the airport go fallow in the first place?
This price tag is outrageous, especially if you go with the LIRR option. The right of way is still extant albeit overgrown from Winfield Junction to Plattwood Avenue (the LIRR ROW is six tracks wide from Winfield to White Pot.) You’re telling me that it cost that much to lay 6 miles of concrete ties and rails after clearing the right of way? This right of way is very similar in construction to the Brighton Beach Embankment. How many foundations are cracking along the Brighton line? The subway option should not include a tie in north of the 63 Drive Station. Subway tunnels in New York are just too prohibitively expensive. The better option is to have the subway operate on the Rockaway ROW all the way to Winfield and then move the Port Washington trains onto the mainline tracks at Winfield instead of Harold, permitting the subway to use the current Port Washington tracks. The subway would then be routed from Sunnyside Yards to the 63 St. tunnel the same way East Side access trains will be. Voila, I just saved the MTA (money thrown away) $10 billion.
And while we’re at it, can we get the Archer Avenue project finished before any more money is spent on Second Avenue? You remember? The E train is supposed to run to Springfield Gardens along the LIRR right of way that goes to Locust Manor.
In business, they call this “saying to with a number.”
It’s total BS. Here is how much we will required that you be screwed in exchange for expanding transit service, and since you are so screwed as it, forget it.
Saying no with a number.
As is plain to see by everyone, the MTA is in maintenance mode, with no interest in expansion. Compare this to the L train work. That, too is it’s own mega-project, and it is going smoothly on all fronts. There’s a big gap between the commitment to that work as compared to a new project. And that’s a shame because without significant changes to the transport network, many people will remain in their private cars in the outer boroughs. With a few exceptions, most of the outer borough subway network coverage isn’t good enough, and the bus service sucks.
Those horrendously inflated construction costs – even by MTA standards – are why I still haven’t read the entire study. I have it bookmarked so I’ll probably get around to reading the whole thing one of these days. But just as bad was the way they proposed to siphon off three M and three R trains per hour in the form of the “Mx train.” I mean, MTA brass really should have just said, “We really don’t want to do this – or any other transit expansion (except – maybe – SAS Phase 2 as WE planned it!). Now you can see why, so go away and leave us the hell alone!”
To be honest, I do have mixed feelings about putting this branch back in service. While I do like the idea of connecting North and South Queens by rail, I still feel that there are other corridors in Queens that would benefit much more from expansions further into Eastern Queens. The endless traffic on Northern Blvd and Jamaica Avenue would benefit tremendously from extensions to the 7 and F trains. And then you wouldn’t have to have one to two dozen bus routes converging on the streets near the ends of the F and 7, and the E/J/Z at Jamaica Center too. But the MTA head honchos don’t want to extend the E, F or 7 either. There’s just no will with this agency. That’s why there’s no way.
It won’t be the (M) line. It will be the (H) line that feeds into the 2nd Avenue Subway.
The (M) will either stay at Forest Hills on Weekdays or will be taken off the Queens Blvd line and extended Uptown to Harlem and Washington Heights.
If the (M) stays on Queens Blvd, it will run less frequently, however if it is taken off Queens Blvd, the (R) will run more frequently during Off Peak Hours.
That’s not happening at all.
What is more likely to happen is the (E) extends to Rochdale via Guy R. Brewer Blvd, or as far as Farmers Blvd via Guy R. Brewer Blvd.
Nobody is willing to give up the faster LIRR which carries you to Penn Station in 30 to 35 minutes for a Subway line that will take 60 minutes.
Also think from Springfield Gardens to The Bronx means (E) –> Triboro RX, rather than Q85/Q111/Q113/Q114 –> Q44 SBS?
The (F) extension means restructuring the Queens Bus Network, while there’s argument for extending the (C) to Rosedale (from Lefferts Blvd) as a new (K) line.
so many good ideas here and frustratingly no power to implement them! one thought i don’t see above; adding this line and diverting the M or R train onto it would allow the restoration of the G train to run to Forest Hills without the ridiculous long transfer tunnel at Queensboro. This is important as it would re-establish a strong subway link between Bklyn and Queens, especially considering the G passes through some of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the city and the line has exploded in usage compared to when i rode it in the 90’s. This fact also might help garner more support for the extension project in the more influential areas of greenpoint and LIC
The drawings are fascinating. It looks like the subway tunnel to Queens Blvd would require taking a fair amount of property. That’s bound to be a major cost driver even more then actual tunnel construction. It looks like the stations will fit entirely within the existing ROW though, which I had wondered about.
The LIRR proposal looks like it expands the ROW significantly, thanks to the FRA requiring a crash wall between LIRR/NYCT tracks. Is anyone out there advocating for the repeal of that draconian rule that prevents safe, cost-effective track-sharing as done the world over? I can’t help but think that no single thing puts as much of a wet blanket on rail service expansion as this rule.
Not that it’s ever going to be built, but the Parkside Station pictured above should be built on the *north* side of Metropolitan Avenue (closer to where people live), rather than on the south side (closer only to a huge Home Depot parking lot). Build the *south* entrance to the station on Metropolitan (with stairs on both sides of the street), and the north entrance near the corner of Nansen and Selfridge.