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The Highline Park is a park flush between buildings from the Meatpacking District to the Chelsea Area. This walkway in the sky used to be an abandoned freight line, unused since 1980, and by 1999 had fallen into serious disrepair.
Today, the elevated line has been looked at as one of the best ways of repurposing an old and out-of-use subway line. With the success of the Highline, other cities have looked to repurpose their old elevated lines into parks, such as Philadelphia’s Rail Park, and Chicago’s Bloomingdale Line (commonly referred to as “The 606”).
The Highline has also brought about two other attempts in New York to adapt abandoned railways into public greenery. One of those projects is an underground park, which will be outfitted with fiber optic lights and run alongside Essex St. in Manhattan—aptly called the Lowline. The Lowline proposal was well received, and will be worked on in conjunction with the MTA.
The other is an elevated line that sparked community controversy; it is now known as the Queensway Project.
The proposed Queensway Park was originally a Long Island Rail Road line from Rockaway Blvd to Rego Park, running a rotating set of train stops until 1955, when it was split into two halves. The first half ran from Rego Park to Ozone Park, and closed in 1962. The other half was bought by the MTA and reopened in 1956 (along with other stops on the line that had been previously closed) as part of the A Train Line, where it still operates today.
In 2011, the Friends of the Queensway (FQW) group was established and coordinated with The Trust For Public Land to convert the LIRR Rockaway Beach Branch into a Highline-type park for the borough. The FQW aims to advocate for the transformation of long-abandoned property into public parks in the large borough of Queens. The project will take the 3.5 mile abandoned line (which looks like desolate wasteland) and turn it into a lush park akin to its Manhattan brethren.
So far, the project received backing from Governor Andrew Cuomo; NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commissioner Rose Harvey; Senator Toby Ann Stavisky; and Congresswoman Grace Meng; in addition to over $1.2 million in donations for the project’s proposed $120 million cost. However, unlike the Highline, which is in a much more affluent area, the Queensway struggles to attract enough substantial financial support.
This is due in part to the divided opinions on what to actually do with the land. There are many who believe the project should be nixed in favor of bringing it back as a subway line, or as a line on the current LIRR. Many proposals have been made and dismissed to revitalize the closed line, including one in 2001 that would have linked Penn Station to the Airtrain to JFK, and one that would have linked the two halves back together and into Midtown Manhattan.
Two main issues reveal themselves within this debate. The first is that the MTA (or the LIRR) no longer own that property. When the Rego Park half of the line was shut down in 1962, the “Right of Way” (the actual ability to pass through that route) was sold back to the City of New York and is currently being administered by the Department for Citywide Administrative Services. The City has since dedicated seven of the 47 acres of the line to parkland for the nearby Forest Park. If the city were to give back the line, they would have to find parkland in another area of the dense suburbia.
Assistant Director of Media Relations at LIRR, Sal Arena, sat down with BTR to talk about the contentious line.
“When the line was taken to be used from the Aqueduct Racetrack down to Rockaway, we sold the rest to the city, and we just operate along the A Line (as the MTA),” said Arena. “As of now we don’t have any involvement with the other half, and don’t currently have plans to either.”
That isn’t to say that it is out of the question to revitalize it, but the other issue is that of cost.
The MTA is currently enamored by their ambitious (but long overdue) $26 billion plan for the next five years to repair and extend the Second Avenue Line and the L Train, among other things. A project of the Rockaway Beach Line magnitude, which requires repairing tracks, buying back the Right of Way, electrifying third rails, and building stations, would cost between $700 million and $2.75 billion. Since the money they need for their original five year plan is not even there in its entirety, this poses a huge problem.
Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have combined to dedicate approximately $10 billion from the city and the state, however, the MTA has so far only received $1 billion.
Taking on another project like the Rockaway Beach Line would inevitably bring about fare hikes, surely pushing the MTA’s current $2.75 price into the three dollar range. With New York City riders facing a fifth price hike in 10 years, this project would almost invariably see outrage in the short term. Also, with the L Train and Second Avenue projects ahead of it, there’s no telling when the MTA would have time to work on it.
Though some residents have spearheaded the Queensway Project, the response from others who live in the area is a demand for it to be left as is.
In November of 2015 a proposal by the Woodhaven Residents Block Association called for a bus line to run on the tracks. The proposals opening statement discusses its displeasure for both the Queensway and MTA’s plans, citing that: “leaving the abandoned rail line alone is the best way to satisfy the needs and desires of as many Woodhaven residents as possible. The WRBA has also called on the City of New York, which owns the land, to take responsibility for maintaining it after years of neglect.”
An MTA Select Bus Service (a limited bus that runs through larger areas) is currently proposed to run through a part of the original Rego Park Line, into Cross Bay Blvd. The busway proposal for the unused train tracks would provide an easier, and most importantly, more reliable route for commuters that is free from traffic congestion.
Although it would be wonderful to see another park in Queens, or a transit line with an inauspicious plan to receive funds, the local community has provided a good third option to the debate. Considering that the peace and privacy for residents would be at stake if the other two options were to go into effect (not to mention rent prices in the area around the new tourist attraction “Queensway” would probably climb), the “Busway” option should get a serious review as the most realistic of the three to see fruition.