track changes

Rockaway Branch Rail Reboot Study Finally Lands

A section of the Rockaway Branch line of the LIRR, which has been out of service for more than half a century, Sept. 27, 2019.
A section of the Rockaway Branch line of the LIRR, which has been out of service for more than half a century, Sept. 27, 2019. Photo: Jose Martinez/THE CITY

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

A long-overdue study of reviving Queens railroad tracks that haven’t been used since the 1960s finally pulled into the station Tuesday — and the ticket price is eye-popping.

The MTA estimates that restoring Long Island Rail Road service to the Rockaway Beach Branch would cost at least $6.7 billion dollars. Meanwhile, connecting the tracks to the subway would carry a $8.1 billion price tag.

Both estimates were made without including costs tacked on by land acquisition.

Either way, the potential price is light years away from the $250 million estimate first mentioned in a 2001 report commissioned by the MTA.

But Assemblymember Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Queens) declared that cost “cannot be an obstacle.”

“We are talking about a real opportunity to give time back to commuters’ lives,” she added.

Tracks Closed in 1962

Three years ago, the MTA committed to the planning and feasibility study looking at the potential use of the LIRR spur, which shut down in 1962.

The results of the study — for which the MTA awarded an $864,000 contract to SYSTRA Engineering in October 2017 — were supposed to be made public last year. An MTA spokesperson told THE CITY last week the findings would be released by the end of 2019.

But the transit agency quietly issued the study, dated “Sept. 2018,” shortly before sunset on the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur.

“It’s been sitting there over a year, just like we suspected,” said Rick Horan, director of the Queens RAIL and WAY Task Force, which the old space used for transit and parkland. “If it wasn’t from pressure [THE CITY’s] story generated, I think we would still be waiting.”

A section of the Rockaway Branch line of the LIRR, which has been out of service for more than half a century, seen in September.
A section of the Rockaway Branch line of the LIRR, which has been out of service for more than half a century, seen in September. Photo: Jose Martinez/THE CITY

The study predicts the LIRR option would serve about 11,000 riders on an average weekday, while a subway extension would handle approximately 47,000 riders per day.

“In general, the abandoned [Rockaway Beach Branch] right-of-way is overgrown with vegetation and is impassable on foot,” the report states. “Several undergrade bridges and viaduct sections will require full replacement due [to] deteriorated conditions. Reactivation will require the laying of new track as well as the installation of new train signals and third-rail traction power substations.”

The study estimates that the LIRR option would move riders between Howard Beach and Penn Station in just under 30 minutes. If the tracks were used as an extension of the Queens Boulevard subway line, the trip between Howard Beach and 34th Street-Herald Square would be about 45 minutes.

‘Economic Growth’ Predicted

A subway extension would require a tunnel boring machine to connect the Queens Boulevard Line to the old tracks, and power substations every 1.5 miles. Still, the report points to potential economic gains from restoring the line for transit purposes.

“The region would experience economic growth through increased property values, desirability/quality of life benefits, accessibility, and mobility options through leveraging the improved travel times to Midtown Manhattan for the study area’s primarily middle-class residents,” the report notes.

But the projected price tags for the LIRR and subway options caused concern among some advocates.

“We are happy they’ve determined this is feasible,” said Horan. “But they need to figure out how to build this for a reasonable amount of money — it seems obvious the MTA is not the organization to do this.”

Others who have pushed for converting the long-dormant railway into a park resembling Manhattan’s High Line said the projected multi-billion dollar costs could help their cause.

“We are really sensitive to the transportation question, but on balance, the park would provide a huge benefit to the community,” said Karen Imas of Friends of the Queensway. “Our hope is that the high costs provide an opening to consider a park.”

The study says that the next steps in the plan, should officials decide to proceed, would be an “environmental review and conceptual engineering.”

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.