Queens Is Probably Getting a ‘High Line’ Instead of a Subway Line
The abandoned Rockaway Beach Branch train line has been a point of contention for decades. Now City Hall looks to finally foreclose a possible reactivation.
4:57 PM EDT on September 20, 2022
Stretching 3.5 miles between central and southwest Queens, the dormant and overgrown Rockaway Beach Branch railroad tracks have tantalized transit advocates for decades. With the population steadily growing in Brooklyn and Queens, commuters have been looking for more efficient ways to travel between the two boroughs, as Manhattan no longer looms so large in the lives of many New Yorkers.
The abandoned right-of-way railroad tracks—an exceedingly rare situation—poses a possible solution: an expansion of the subway that would connect the Queens Boulevard express lines to the J train, the A train, and run all the way out to the Rockaways, taking the place of the shuttle.
During the sixty years since the corridor's deactivation by the Long Island Rail Road, the rail line has become overgrown with trees, and in some cases, has now become part of people's backyards or storage for auto shops.
For years, the group QueensLink has advocated for the reactivation of the subway line. "Everything works on this on every level," said Andrew Lynch, a graphic designer and QueensLink member. "It doesn’t have grade crossings, you don't have to seize land, all you need to do is rebuild it to make it viable."
But after the success of the High Line in Manhattan, a group of Forest Hills residents began putting forward a different idea for the line—the QueensWay, a linear park that would mimic the High Line, albeit far removed from the city's center. This plan would convert the railroad line into a 47-acre park with seven miles of greenway, outdoor classrooms, and bike lanes.
Over the past decade, the two competing projects have duked it out, with park advocates slowly gaining both monetary and political support. Meanwhile, transit advocates continued to stress the need for the subway line, as bus improvements along Woodhaven Boulevard have crawled along, and the climate crisis worsened.
On Friday, seemingly out of nowhere, Mayor Eric Adams threw his weight behind the QueensWay plan. Adams pledged $35 million to design an initial plaza that would kickstart the rail-to-park project, which currently has no opening date.
"QueensWay improves quality of life, improves the air quality, and it promotes both physical and mental wellbeing. And it gives more visibility to businesses along the route," Adams said during a brief speech on Friday during which he took no questions.
Adams was backed by a chorus of supporters, including the influential Regional Plan Association, which is usually loath to take possible mass transit options off the table.
"We saw it as a piece of the growth of the area, a way to improve cycling and walking connections, provide more green space for local residents, and, most importantly, a way to get something done during our lifetime," said Kate Slevin, the RPA's Executive Vice President.
The RPA has been a backer of the Interboro Express, a separate north-south transit line that would also operate on underutilized existing rail corridors, this one stretching from Bay Ridge to Jackson Heights. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is currently holding meetings about the IBX, at the behest of Governor Kathy Hochul, who said, while announcing her support for the project, that "infrastructure is all about connection, and with the Interborough Express we can connect people to their family and friends while also improving their quality of life."
But Slevin stressed that the decision to back the QueensWay wasn't because there wasn't a need for the rail line—but because the necessary federal funding for such a project would be hard to come by.
"The threshold for receiving federal rail funding is quite high. You need density, and an area that's relatively far from other transit connection," Slevin said. "We're in favor of what was feasible in the corridor and what was likely to advance."
Slevin pointed to better bus service and the bike infrastructure a park could provide as possible ways to improve transit in the area, while forgoing a rail connection.
Right now, the initial plaza, dubbed the "QueensWay Metropolitan Hub," would be close to Forest Park, a massive 538-acre park that is more than ten times the size of the proposed QueensWay.
"From a needs perspective, does this community need public space, or does it need transit? That's really the crux of the issue here," said Jackson Chabot of Open Plans NYC, a group that advocates for "civic engagement for livable streets." His organization has not taken a position on the unused rail line. Chabot added, "Ideally we can have both."
City Hall told Hell Gate that the Adams administration would wait for the MTA to release its 20-year needs assessment next October to determine if the park could co-exist with a rail option, but in the meantime it would move forward with designing the park. And if the slow-moving agency doesn't hit its self-imposed deadline, then the City would go ahead and do construction work that would most likely forever preclude the use of the rail line as a subway extension.
The MTA, always wary of new capital projects, has never given much serious thought to the extension project. In 2016, it was forced by the state legislature to do a feasibility study on the QueensLink—and then the agency tried to keep it secret for years. Once the report was finally made public, it came with an eye-popping $8 billion price tag, which advocates for the rail line reactivation thought was far overblown (and possibly inflated on purpose by a skeptical MTA). The MTA cited not only the building of a new tunnel, but the complete reconstruction of several parts of the old infrastructure as the reasoning behind the price tag. "Several undergrade bridges and viaduct sections will require full replacement due [to] deteriorated conditions," the report stated.
"Yes, you would have to dig a tunnel under Queens Boulevard to connect it to the subway lines, but this is exactly what was envisioned in the 1930s, when they made the provisions for this subway line to one day become a reality," said QueensLink's Lynch. At present, two tunnels sit below Queens Boulevard, waiting for nearly a century to be connected to the rail line. Lynch's group even went so far as to commission their own study to counter the MTA's report, and found that the project could be done at half the MTA's estimate.
Supporters of the QueensLink have stressed that for almost all of the unused rail line, a linear park and even bike lanes could co-exist with a subway extension, but in meetings, QueensWay organizers have rebuffed the proposal to join forces.
At the press conference on Friday, only Queens Borough President Donovan Richards mentioned the need to continue exploring a rail option, even as he celebrated the initial funding for the linear park.
Lynch believes that the rail option has suffered without an influential political champion.
"You think the MTA wanted to build the 7 line extension? No way. They did it because Bloomberg told them to," Lynch said.
When asked if he saw a path forward for the rail option once at least a part of the linear park is built on the rail bed, Lynch was skeptical.
"It would be like landscaping your front lawn and garden before even building your house," he said. "There’s just not going to be a lot of energy to rip it up at that point."
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