There have been some recent news stories about the NYC city council trying to plan some better transit options around NYC – one of those ideas is to revive passenger train service along the ‘Lower Montauk’ tracks through Queens.
City councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley is pushing for a light rail train that would connect a mall in Glendale to LIC.
Let’s get into some history Q & A:
Q: What is the ‘Lower Montauk’? What is it’s history?
A: This route was once a vital part of LIRR service to long island. It runs from LIC to Jamaica station, where it meets up with the main line and Atlantic avenue branches.
Q: When did passenger train service end?
A: This route had rush-hour only passenger service that was discontinued in 1998.
Q: Why did the LIRR stop running passenger trains here?
A: Service was discontinued for 2 reasons: 1) At the time, ridership was only 1 or 2 passengers per stop. and 2) the federal government required the MTA to have ‘high level’ platforms that are handicap accessible (the ADA requirements). The cost of upgrading these stations was estimated at the time to be somewhere between $260,000 to $2.25 million per station. The cost for so few riders just plain didn’t make sense at the time. Though perhaps if the money was spent, more people would have know there were stations here?
Nearly all of the stops along this route were barely recognizable as stations. Most were dirt patches next to the tracks, maybe with a station sign on them. There were no ticket vending machines, much less a concrete pad to stand on. As one of the regular commuters from Glendale stated at the time: “You don’t realize how many people walk by and say, ‘There’s a station here?””
The train service here was also very limited – to rush hour only trains and only in one direction (towards LIC in the morning, and the reverse towards Long Island in the evening).
The lack of station infrastructure combined with extremely limited service handicapped this route from being useful to most commuters. There was also a reported fear back in the 1970s against having rapid transit on this route. Indeed, one concept for the 63rd street tunnel was to run the F train down along these tracks. I’ve heard rumors that there were actual protests against this plan by those living near the tracks, lead by Geraldine Ferraro. (see the comment by Larry Littlefield for here reference – this was before my time, so I’ll have to research it more – by all means comment below if you were around back then and can add to this).
In the years since passenger service ended, the existing freight service has expanded significantly. Today there are literally hundreds of freight cars moved between fresh pond yard (near the middle of the route) and LIC. There’s even more freight moving east to and from Long Island.
In 2013, the MTA filed to eliminate maintenance of the very old signal system along this route. With no passenger trains, there was no reason to maintain the signal system. This has resulted in freight trains running at no more than 15 mph through the territory.
Just recently, the MTA filed to abandon the ‘Montauk cutoff’.
Q: What is this Montauk cutoff?
A: The cutoff runs from just west of Greenpoint avenue bridge, curving north across a drawbridge and embankment, then lowering into sunnyside yard / harold interlocking.
The viaduct across the yard is in very poor shape. It is structurally deficient. There is also a very structurally deficient drawbridge (called M cabin) across the Dutch Kills waterway. This route has never seen passenger service, and last saw freight traffic early in 2015. The existing freight customers were moved to a new yard behind fresh direct, thus this route will never see another freight train again.
Why does this matter? Read on…
Q: What is Crowley’s idea?
A: Elizabeth Crowley is an NYC City Councilwoman who has put forward an idea, as reported here, for a light rail line to run from the new-ish Atlas Park mall (a shopping center that hasn’t been terribly successful), to the LIRR station at Hunterspoint Avenue.
She is proposing no service whatsoever east of Atlas Mall (connecting to Richmond Hill and Jamaica).
Q: Has anyone else written about this idea?
A: Yes. A transit blogger going by the name ‘Captain Transit’ thinks the Crowley light rail idea should connect to Court Square and Queens Plaza. This would allow for connections to many more subway routes. The reported Crowley idea connects to the Hunterspoint Ave. LIRR stop – we’ll get to that in a minute.
Lets take a quick look at the issues:
1) There is no signal system.
You would need an entire new signal system, at significant cost. Crowley has not mentioned this at all.
2) Trains would need to be diesel powered
Installing third rail along tracks that have numerous rail crossing is a serious safety hazard. Look no further than the tragic, fiery deaths of six people on board a Metro North train that derailed and caught fire after hitting a car at a crossing in Valhalla for proof of why this idea is a non-starter.. Overhead wires are also dangerous, and expensive.
To get around this, Crowley is proposing the use of diesel-powered light rail cars. It’s one of the only smart things in her proposal. She has not stated if they would be FRA complaint (and I suspect she doesn’t know what that means or how important it is).
3) Community Opposition to Diesel
Meanwhile, an anti-train civic group has been complaining for over a decade about the existing diesel freight locomotives (mostly owned by the MTA) that use this route. Just check out their facebook post form October 13, 2015. Here’s just one quote: “Meanwhile, the old, high polluting trains are still being used next to homes, schools, and parks every single day of the year. “. Will these people want diesel powered passenger trains passing their homes every 10 minutes? They already complain about the freight trains that pass by perhaps a dozen times per day. So there is already an anti-rail community group against this idea.
*Note – ‘CURES’ is one of those organizations that know just enough to sound smart to the untrained ear. As the old saying goes “They just know enough to be dangerous”. Don’t let their rehtoric fool you: They are 100% anti-rail to a point that they protested a holiday ‘Santa train’ sponsored by the freight railroad that was giving out free gifts to neighborhood kids. The railroad was trying to be a be a good neighbor, and instead CURES showed up with signs saying ‘TRAINS KILL KIDS”. The railroad never ran another santa train again. CURES literally protested Santa Claus. Thanks CURES.
CURES protesting who knows what again…
4) Why Captain Transit’s idea is a day late and a hundred million short
The cutoff is already being abandoned, and the MTA has already solicited proposals for converting the embankment from skillman avenue to M Cabin into a park. An existing community group already has a lease on some adjacent LIRR property, called the ‘Smiling Hogshead Ranch’ (the abandoned Degnon terminal track leads). The MTA has already solicited proposals for converting the montauk cutoff to recreational use, and the folks at the existing Hogshead ranch stand a strong chance of winning those rights. The MTA would still have the right to retake the route for transit any time in the future, but they would face opposition from whoever gets to create a recreation space on these tracks. We’re getting into muddy legal waters now. Legal fees will cost a lot of taxpayer money once an agreement is signed – and that is likely to come within weeks.
Also, rebuilding the bridges on the cutoff would cost a lot of money. It could be done – but who’s going to fund it? We’re talking tens of millions of dollars. Again – not the end of the world, but it’s expensive. This is a 100+ year old route that has seen little to no maintenance.
Stations here would also be costly. Near court square, the rails in question are still on an embankment. You can’t just built a platform right there – not without major alterations. A more suitable location would be at Queens blvd, though the LIRR already has designs for their new yard here, so changes would need to be made – basically right now. These design changes will cost money in for redoing design work, so we’re already losing cash. And remember, we’ve already waded neck deep into muddy waters with the abandonment of the Montauk cutoff already well underway and likely to be approved by the FRA shortly.
I think this would have been a really interesting idea a few years ago. It still is an interesting idea – a good idea even, but it’s getting more expensive by the minute. Is there political will to do this? If so action needs to be taken immediately to end the abandonment process and not lease the land to become a park.
I’m not trying to nay-say this idea completely, but it isn’t as easy as drawing a line on a map.
5) Maintenance Facilities – where would they be?
Crowley hasn’t talked much about if her trains would be FRA complaint. With Non-FRA compliant Light Rail, you could not move these same trains on the connecting LIRR tracks. You would also need a new repair and cleaning facility. Where would this be built? Atlas Park? There’s little to zero land available along the route for building such a facility. Property would have to be eminent domained somewhere along the route. Maybe they can bulldoze some of those vacant storefronts at the mall to make space? Maybe people’s homes could be taken?
Crowley hasn’t said anything about what kind of DMU cars she’d recommend, though she has toured light rail facilities in Jersey City which feature cars that are not FRA complaint.
6) Existing freight trains.
This one isn’t as easy to to overcome as people might think. Yes, freight and commuter rail style equipment passenger trains can co-exist. They even co-exist on tracks with light rail trains. But there’s a problem, and it’s name is Blissville.
7) The newly reactivated Blissville yard
There are two big obstacles at Blissville:
Every track through Blissville (just west of Greenpoint avenue bridge) is now an active yard track, being switched several times a day by a short trash train shuttle that cannot only run at night due to traffic volume. This includes the two former Montauk Cutoff tracks, right up to M Cabin. In order to allow for two passenger tracks through this yard, new yard tracks would ideally need to be built somewhere in this area. We’re now potentially talking about eminent domain, building demolition and other expensive construction costs.
Also, there is a stretch of track between Blissville and the trash transfer facility that is single tracked. A second (and maybe even third) track would need to be installed here to allow two directions of passenger train while keeping the trash shuttle separated completely.
No matter how you slice it, running passenger trains through Blissville is going to require costly modifications that no reporter, transit advocate or elected official have cared to acknowledge. Probably because they don’t know and haven’t actually looked around the area recently.
8) And lastly, DB Drawbridge.
DB is a drawbridge between Blissville and LIC, crossing the Dutch Kills waterway. This bridge is well over 100 years old. it is a single track drawbridge that literally broke the last time it was opened in the late 1990s. For passenger rail to resume using this route, this bridge would need to be completely replaced.
We’ve now listed 8 very major issues preventing Crowley’s idea from happening. Does that mean we can never have a light rail line along these tracks? No. What it really means is that Crowley doesn’t actually have a plan, and that if we’re ever going to see transit trains on this route again, we need knowledgeable leadership. She hasn’t looked at any of these issues. In fact, she doesn’t even seem to have looked at these tracks.
With all of this said, I’m going to be very generous by stating “Elizabeth Crowley has no clue what she’s talking about”.
Let’s look at her recent quotes on this topic:
Really? Let’s take a look.
I could go on, but you get the idea: Liz Crowley either doesn’t know what she is talking about or deliberately lying directly to the press and public..
Let’s back up though and look at Crowley’s actual plan:
“Crowley proposes that the line would start at The Shops at Atlas Park, where there are 1,300 parking spaces available, with stops heading west, terminating at the Hunterspoint Avenue LIRR stop, which has a train depot to store and turn trains around.”
She is proposing to run trains only from Atlas Park to… Hunterspoint Ave? Is Crowley really proposing that trains run down to LIC yard, then back up to Hunterspoint Avenue? What would the point of that be? Does she know that there is no other physical connection to route trains on the Lower Montauk tracks to Hunterspoint Avenue?
Just look at the map and the photo above of the Montauk Cutoff – the only way to get a train from Glendale to Hunterspoint Avenue station is to go into the yard at LIC and reverse back to Hunterspoint. This isn’t just a misprint – other publications have stated Hunterspoint would be the end station at end of the line in LIC – NOT the existing LIRR LIC station located next to Borden avenue.
How can anyone take her idea seriously if she doesn’t know this?
The Mall Terminal: Cronyism at its worst
Also – why terminate the route at a mall? It doesn’t service the potential ridership from Jamaica and the old Richmond Hill station at all. This is literally building a rail line to nowhere.
Half of the Atlas property is owned by Gina Argento-Ciafone, who is a Crowley-Crony.
Of course, there is a good reason in Crowley’s mind to go to the mall: Half of the Atlas property is owned by Gina Argento-Ciafone, who is a Crowley-Crony. This is NYC politics afterall – where some real estate developer or another is always looking to the government for schemes to increase the value of their holdings.
The mall half of Atlas Park is owned by Macerich, a huge company that owns many malls across the USA. I’m sure they’d love to cash in on the 1300 parking spots they have available for rent. $200 a month parking passes would be a quarter of a million dollars in revenue every month. Or maybe Gina would build one huge parking lot and get the cash instead?
Thus, the only reason for terminating this proposed light rail line at Atlas Park is money for cronyism.
Sadly, it doesn’t just end there:
Crowley doesn’t know who currently dispatches these tracks
Just read this gem of a quote: “Crowley responded by saying that companies are looking to increase the amount of freight, and if the community does not recognize this track as a benefit then it might be taken over for freight transportation.”
Again, Crowley doesn’t know what is happening along these tracks. The LIRR has given full operational control over these tracks to the freight railway. (For there part, the freight operator, New York & Atlantic railway – has publicly stated that all of this is an issue for the MTA to sort out, under the expectation that the federally protected interstate commerce inherit in rail freight operates will not be infringed upon).
But wait, it gets even worse:
How does Crowley feel about all of the industries in LIC and Maspeth?
“If you look at the line, there is a lot of underutilized manufacturing which is also threatening us”.
First up – she doesn’t realize that the warehouse vacancy rate in this area is next to zero: nearly every warehouse along these tracks is in full operation, with actual blue collar jobs. For some reason, this is ‘threatening’ to her. She is threatened by the fact that there is a coca cola factory near these tracks that hosts hundreds of jobs. She’s threatened by the very active lumber and aggregate yards that supply NYC with building materials. Without easy access to those materials, construction costs will go up – costs that will be past to renters, home buyers and home owners.
There’s also significant food distribution customers using warehouses and receiving freight along this route. UPS and Fed Ex have large facilities here too – enabling delivery to your doorstep across much of NYC. There’s also repair shops for NYPD and FDNY vehicles – where are these facilities suppose to be moved to? For some reason, these Crowley feels threatened by these businesses. She feels threatened by the city’s first responder agencies having a place to maintain their equipment. Think about that.
She’s also apparently naive enough to state that these warehouses are ‘underutilized’. has she ever so much as driven or walked through this area during any given weekday?
Like it or not NYC needs ‘industrial’ neighborhoods to supply food, construction materials, and even to provide blue collar jobs. NYC has lost too much of its industrial heritage and manufacturing jobs already.
Call me crazy, but as a taxpayer I feel much more threatened by irresponsible governance by the likes of Crowley than any of the above.
Call me crazy, but as a taxpayer I feel much more threatened by irresponsible governance by the likes of Crowley than any of the above.
She doesn’t even know how much a train car costs.
You can’t make this stuff up: “The cost of one of these light rail cars is about the same as a city bus,” she said. . Again, she is lying to the public. A new bus generally costs between $300-500k. A new light rail car costs more like $2-3 Million.
And she doesn’t want platforms?!!!
Again – you can’t make this shit up: “What’s more, light rail stations does not require the infrastructure associated with subway stops. Often, light rail cars simply mimic the streetcars and trolleys of the early 20th Century, picking up passengers at assigned stops.“ Half the reason the LIRR stopped running passenger trains here was the complete lack of anything resembling a station (at every stop except Richmond Hill). Just look at the photo at the top of this post – that was LIRR’s Glendale stop. Do you see a station there? Would you stand there expecting a train to pick you up??!!!! Nevermind the ADA regulations.
What she is advocating here is a station used by low level light rail cars that very likely would not be FRA complaint and would be completely incompatible with literally every other MTA property.
How is this person in office?!
By now you might be asking asking yourself, “how do incompetent people like Elizabeth Crowley get elected to office?” Let me answer that – in her case, she’s cousins with Queens democratic party boss and congressional representative “Virgina” Joe Crowley. Joe Crowley lives in Virgina while pretending to represent Queens (how that is legal or how he gets reelected is beyond me). It wasn’t hard for Liz Crowley to get elected – she displaced a man who only served a few months in office after their predecessor, Dennis Gallagher, raped a women in his district office.
Crowley has more baggage than an airport carousel, and her idea is seriously flawed in many many ways. Simple stated, she is the wrong advocate for this project. All she has is an idea (not an actual plan), and the ear of a few media outlets who unfortunately have parroted what she has said without examining if it is based in reality. Having an idea like this is cute and all, but I’m sorry cute ideas just don’t (fucking) cut it in NYC. It doesn’t cut it when we’re talking about a multi-million dollar transit project with significant constraints to be addressed with minimal economic disruption.
Literally the only good thing about Crowley’s idea that it has gotten people talking. By writing this article, I’m hoping that conversation both continues and grows. Just because her idea is serious lacking doesn’t mean Queens doesn’t need more transit options.
Know-nothing elected-by-apathy officials like Elizabeth Crowley are the reason transit projects such as this one are not taken seriously.
Crowley’s ‘light rail to the mall’ scheme is a really bad idea that makes no mention of many serious issues preventing it from happening. The people of Queens need real transit solutions. Until we (the people of Queens) start electing representatives who know what they’re talking about, this half baked cronyism ‘light rail to the mall’ is sadly the plan that Queens deserves. Enough is enough. Vote Crowley out of office, and vote out her cousin ‘Virgina Joe’ Crowley out of congress. If Queens had better elected representatives – ones who paid attention to the issues and proposed real plans, we could create an entire new transit system to truly service the needs of the community and city on a whole.