If you look at a satellite map of central Queens identifying only neighborhoods and not streets or places of interest, you will see a slice of green running north-to-south between Rego Park and Ozone Park.
That’s the defunct Rockaway Beach branch of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), which has been dormant since the last train rode its tracks in 1962.
Over the last 50 years, the line has been evolving into a natural state through reforestation. Left virtually untouched by man, trees and plants have sprouted through the wooden ties and around the rusted steel tracks for the length of the branch.
For some, it looks like a forbidden park just waiting for visitors to appreciate it. For others, it looks like a place of neglect that could be revitalized into something useful. For those on both sides of that coin, they see one thing: opportunity.
Several local elected officials and community leaders in southern Queens want to the Rockaway Beach branch to be returned to its original purpose as a rail line connecting thousands to Manhattan with relative ease. They claim that the line would provide a vital link to businesses and residents in southern Queens and cut commuting time by half.
However, a group of activists in central Queens say that the Rockaway Beach branch should be turned into a linear public space in the fashion of the High Line in Manhattan. The park, called “Queensway,” would also double as a bike path, allowing visitors on two wheels to travel easily and enjoy a trail of nature without intersecting with busy roadways.
Both are great ideas, and both carry with them many questions and criticisms. Residents living near the line fear that bringing back rail would expose them to noise and other quality-of-life problems associated with subway or commuter trains. There are also questions about security and who would be responsible for patrolling a park during evening hours.
Naturally, the costs of either proposal were also raised, and many wondered how the state, city or federal governments could afford to fund either plan at a time of continued financial turmoil.
One group, the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association, recently held a public hearing on both ideas. Based on the comments they received, they declined to support either the rail revitalization plan or the Queensway plan and suggested the city should maintain the line, but leave it be. The group claimed that “any change to the rail line, especially reactivating it, could have a considerable negative impact on many residents.”
Much of the debate about the Rockaway Beach branch took place before New York City got walloped by Hurricane Sandy. Among the physical casualties of the storm was the A line south of the Howard Beach station; parts of the subway line crossing Jamaica Bay were totally destroyed by the surf.
The damages from Sandy across the region are expected to cost over $50 billion, and with governments wondering how to pay for that, it’s almost certain that there won’t be enough public funding for any plan for the Rockaway Beach branch.
With all this in mind, we believe it’s proper for any plans for the line to be mothballed until further notice. Let the city recover from Sandy first, and let’s revisit the ideas for the Rockaway Beach branch once we’re on better financial footing as a city, a state and a nation.
In this case, letting nature continue as caretaker of the branch seems like the only sensible option.