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Is the Dream of Reviving the Rockaways to Elmhurst Subway Line Dead?

A defunct rail line is probably going to get torn up to put a park inside a larger park.

A rendering of the QueensWay, a park people will definitely “use.” (NYC Parks)

New York's leaders are passing on a rare, once-in-a-generation opportunity to add desperately needed transit in Queens—all so a park can have another park in it. 

For years, advocates of the QueensLink plan to reactivate the abandoned and overgrown Long Island Rail Road tracks in central Queens that run from Elmhurst to the Rockaways have tried to get enough buy-in from elected officials and the MTA to make it happen. 

Last Wednesday, the federal Department of Transportation announced a $117 million "Reconnecting Communities" grant to fund a rival plan called the QueensWay, that would create a park, similar to Manhattan's High Line, along the LIRR tracks.

The first part of the QueensWay, dubbed the "Metropolitan Hub," was already funded by the Adams administration in 2022 at a price of $35 million and mostly consisted of a pedestrian plaza, so it didn't really encroach on the railroad's existing right-of-way. The new cash infusion from the Biden administration would allow the QueensWay to break ground on the unused tracks, essentially precluding the construction of the rail link.

The latest cash infusion lends credence to the belief that the park plan is simply meant to head off rail reactivation, as the QueensWay backers have prioritized building out the section of the rail tracks that run through Forest Park, where homeowners would not need to be inconvenienced or see people near their backyards. Residents in Central Queens wouldn't be getting new access to new green space, they'd just have more greenspace inside a pre-existing one. 

"The supporters of the QueensWay keep saying you know, this won't block transit," said Andrew Lynch, a transit advocate and a designer working with the group pushing for the QueensLink. "But ultimately this is more sinister because you could build this park then say the state has the right to come in later and build transit, but that would be way more expensive and also fairly impossible."

Lynch added that "once this park is developed, no one is gonna want to give it up for transit."

A rendering of the proposed QueensLink. (QueensLink)

While municipal and state lawmakers have almost uniformly thrown their weight behind the QueensLink, citing the need for more transit in the area, QueensWay supporters have refused to work with them on a plan that would incorporate both transit and a park, even as politicians have begged them to consider it. According to QueensLink organizers, the Queens Borough President, Donovan Richards, tried to get the two groups to work together on the project—but the QueensWay supporters refused to even consider incorporating rail into their vision. 

Asked if they would consider working with QueensLink supporters, a spokesperson for Friends of the QueensWay, the group advocating for the park, sidestepped the question completely, only saying that they are "grateful for these investments so that the [rail line] does not remain vacant and unused for another 60 years."

Supporters of the QueensLink. (Hell Gate)

"By reclaiming and redeveloping the abandoned rail, the QueensWay will provide public access to green space, while acting as a main artery of the borough, connecting six distinct neighborhoods and Forest Park," the spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.  

"There's a false dichotomy here, that you can either have transit, or you can have the park. I say do both!" State Senator James Sanders, who represents the Rockaways, said at a rally in favor of the QueensLink last fall. 

Sanders has helped make sure that $10 million for an Environmental Impact Study for the rail reactivation was included in the State Senate's budget proposal last week. 

"If anyone is talking about only building one option? It's not the QueensLink folks! We get to respond to communities that are being ignored and are in transit deserts," Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said at the same rally as Sanders. "This is a win-win."

QueensLink supporters are hopeful that a new EIS that would determine the cost and feasibility of the QueensLink would help remove one of the biggest roadblocks to their goal: the agency in charge of the rail activation.

The MTA has been skeptical of the benefits of the rail option, giving it poor scores in its latest needs assessment. At the same time, the MTA has identified the "Interboro Express" as a better option for connecting outerboro transit, which would use an existing freight line that runs between Brooklyn and Queens.

The MTA did not respond to detailed questions about the QueensWay and QueensLink and instead directed Hell Gate to the Adams administration, which then threw the onus back on the MTA. In an emailed statement, a City Hall spokesperson said that the QueensWay "does not preclude an MTA project if they determine one is feasible," and that the administration would be "ready to partner with them if they decide to move forward."

Though the hour is late, QueensLink supporters don't seem ready to give up yet on what they see as a huge opportunity to increase transit in a transit-starved and park-rich area. 

"We're still in it," said Lynch. "Every time there's any type of announcement about the QueensWay's funding, we see our engagement explode as people get really interested in this alternative. But I'm also not gonna say that this funding announcement is the best thing that could happen for us."

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