Abandoned LIRR Rockaway Beach Branch – Park Politics Edition

Published on: February 9th, 2016 Written by:

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In Queens, a desperately needed transit option for multiple communities is under attack.

Intro
Various people involved with the LTV Squad have been running around the abandoned LIRR Rockaway Beach Branch for literally decades now. We used to have a few articles with photos of it posted to this site a long time ago. This post will be the first of a ‘reboot’ series covering the length of this abandoned railroad. I’ll dig into it’s history and the current political quagmire surrounding it.

Parks vs. Transit
Much of this abandoned railroad right-of-way is being ‘studied’ for conversion to parkland, while community and transit advocates have been pressing hard for the tracks to be reopened. The conversation has been getting pretty heated lately, so I figured this would be a good a time as any to turn up the heat even further.

The middle of the line
To reboot my articles, I’m starting on the stretch of track running from Union Turnpike to Park Lane South.

Map

Cuomo has refused to fund any studies of reactivating these tracks for commuter use.

Starting on this stretch of track was inspired by some interesting recent conversations on Twitter between transit advocates and Adrian Benepe, the former NYC parks commissioner who now works for the Trust for Public Land, leading the team behind the Queensway project. The Queensway studies, by the way, are being funded by Governor Cuomo. Cuomo has refused to fund any studies of reactivating these tracks for commuter use.


Belligerent Benepe

In December 2015, Benepe posted these gems in response to a twitter account advocating for the reactivation of these tracks as a transit route.

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In this tweet, Benepe responds to a legitimate (though heated) question by bloviating. I suspect a survey of these 4 million new yorkers would yield questions like “Trust for public land? Who are they?”.

This is a tone-deaf response. The community surrounding these abandoned tracks is very divided on what the future of these tracks should be. Anyone claiming to represent them all is immediately suspect.

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In this tweet, Benepe states the tracks are a haven for drug addicts.

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Here again, Benepe is not interested in conversation – only building Queensway. He insists a portion of the abandoned tracks (specifically from the apartment building at Union Turnpike to Park Lane South) is parkland.

I truly find Benepe’s tweets on this subject a little disturbing. Here is a man whose entire PR machine is built upon having done more for parks than anyone since Robert Moses. Benepe was NYC’s parks commissioner for 10 years. During those 10 years, he did absolutely nothing for the section of tracks that he claims is parkland.

I have personally hiked these tracks. I looked under every rock and overpass I could for these ‘drug users’ alleged to be around these abandoned tracks, and I couldn’t find a single one.

I looked for signs of drug use: old syringes, plastic baggies, etc. I found absolutely no drug paraphernalia.

What I did see though is was a very intact right of way, with tracks still installed. I also saw a lot of trash, and some very legitimate, canvas worthy graffiti art. How can Benepe, or the NYC government, claim this is actually a park? It clearly is not.

Don’t take my word for it, let’s take a photographic tour of these tracks.

Park Lane South
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Park lane South overpass

Starting out just south of Park Lane South, the right-of-way is 4 tracks wide. There was a pipe factory located here which had a rail siding. This factory was converted to apartments long ago.

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Map of the track layout through this area.

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The side wall of the factory has a ‘2Buck’ piece done just prior to his death (2Buck was a traveling artist who painted all across america)

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Photos from behind the former pipe factory.

Heading north, the overpass here is 3 tracks wide – with the furthest east track originally serving the pipe companies siding. The overpass itself is overgrown, and bracketed by old fences with holes in them. Why these fences were ever installed is beyond me. Should dangerous razor wire be left around ‘parkland’?

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As I hiked northward, I couldn’t find where this siding track connected to the former Manhattan bound track. Clearly the switch was removed before the railroad was abandoned.

Nevertheless, we are now in what the NYC government and parks advocates claim is parkland. The ROW here is wide – you could easily have 4 tracks running through here. In fact, at one point there was a third track here for freight use, called “Brooklyn Hills siding”. Another broken, ancient fence can be found just to the east – the theoretical boundary between parkland and railroad. To the west, a newer fence is installed.

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There is no clear path along the right of way. hiking through here requires some Beyonce level footwork, stepping over toppled trees, trash, and the rails and crossties that were never removed after trains stopped running (third rail included). If this is a ‘park’, it sure doesn’t feel like one, or look like one. Frankly – that’s because it isn’t. This is NOT a park. This is an abandoned transit right of way.

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Forest Park Drive overpass

Looming high above the west side of the tracks are abandoned utility towers. They are mostly hidden by the overgrown of trees, though many have fallen, and those that remain appear dangerously close to toppling. Is this the type of dangerous structure that should be on land considered an NYC park?

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This is a deadly accident and lawsuit waiting to happen. Not to mention the tripping hazards that the abandoned tracks present. The city has exposed itself to lawsuits by claiming the tracks through forest park are an actual part of the park.

People!
Up until this point, I had seen no one on or near these tracks. As I approached Myrtle avenue, I ran into an older couple hiking the tracks just as I was. We walked right up to each other with friendly greetings and no hesitation. Were these the drug addicts Benepe spoke of?

Of course not. They were fellow rail & history buffs, taking in the scenery.

They were also the only other people I saw who had any interest at all in hiking these tracks. Converting this space to a park really wouldn’t attract all that many people


The graffiti wall

I proceeded north slowly, shooting all of the graffiti along the wall that is against the Victory sports fields. There is some serious good art here. This is the high quality graffiti I’m used to seeing along freight tracks – not inside what the city claims is a ‘park’.

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As i continued north, I kept this in mind – seeing various bits of junk. I’ve never see abandoned home boilers in Central Park. Nor do I see this much litter, or broken TVs, or tires, or _______ (insert basically any form of trash – because it’s here). How can the city government claim this is a park with a straight face? Who do they think they are kidding?

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Yes, that is a small boiler

I’m sure Queensway advocates will say ‘this is why we need the Queensway Project! We need to clean up this park!‘. To that I want to say ‘you’re kidding right?’ Queens is filled with actual, neglected parks.

Benepe was parks commissioner during the entire time that the Willow Lake trail sat completely abandoned. Have Queensway advocates ever seen what Flushing Meadows or Rainey parks looks like after a summer weekend? When Queens residents wanted to convert the old Saint Savouirs site to a park, where were our elected officials? Where was the ‘Trust for Public Land? When the Greater Astoria Historical Society wanted to save the Steinway Mansion (and its grounds), where was the ‘trust for public land’? When WE advocated for the creation of a new park in Astoria, again – where were the elected officials? Where was the Trust for Public Land?

The government wasn’t interested in any of these Queens park projects. Why are they now so suddenly dedicated to ‘Queensway’?

We here at LTV Squad are strong advocates for creating and maintaining actual parks. But these tracks – running along a long forgotten, never maintained edge of forest park – this is not parkland. This is a railroad right of way. It is one that should never, ever have been closed down, and it is desperately needed to relieve traffic and congestion not just along Woodhaven blvd – but through Queens and Brooklyn. Reviving these tracks could provide a one seat ride from Penn station to JFK (and soon GCT) – eliminating hundreds of thousands of taxi and bus trips through Queens and Brooklyn. Reopening these tracks could shave nearly an hour off commute times from this part of Queens, and it would reduce automotive dependency – which is hard linked to “Vision Zero’ traffic deaths.

Reopening these tracks could shave nearly an hour off commute times from this part of Queens

But hey, instead of this smart vision for urban planning, Queens is probably going to get a new park that it did not ask for. This new park will be fancy and clean, while all other Queens parks continue to languish and be abused. Queensway isn’t about green space – it is nothing more than a jobs program for political connected friends of Cuomo.

And that, my friends, is pathetic. Those involved should be ashamed of themselves. They shouldn’t parade around like they are rock stars. They are depriving Queens of clean parks and instead attempting to build a new one on a transit right of way that desperately needs to be reactivated.


Union Turnpike

At the northern end of my hike, I came up to the infamous ‘encroachment lot’. A large crescent shaped apartment building has built a flat, asphalt parking lot across the right of way. Is this building paying the city for use of the right of way? Was the right of way here sold to the building? They appear to be two separate lots on property maps.

Transit advocates often call this one of two ‘encroachment lots’ along the tracks. On who’s author it was built is unknown. Ironically, if the trains still ran here, many of those living in the building might not need a car at all.

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This parking lot is one of the only man-made structures blocking the right of way. It’s an easy problem to fix: move the cars, rip up the asphalt, relay the track, done.

The rest of this segment is rail-ready. Send in the bulldozers, clear the trees and decayed track, replace the overpasses on Union Turnpike and Park Lane. Congratulations – you just built nearly 1/4 of this revived rail route. Your biggest expense is the new track (approximately 2M per mile, for 2 tracks with third rail it’s likely around 6M per mile) and bridges (running 10-15M). No crazy deep bore tunneling like what the MTA is throwing away money in with SAS, GCT and (recently) the 7 extension.

Reactivating this railroad is not some trillion dollar out of reach project that parts advocates would have you believe it is. The only thing preventing it from happening is an informed population and relentless advocacy.

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If this is parkland, why wasn’t the old fence between the park and tracks removed?

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The replacement parkland non-issue
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Benepe contends that we can’t reactivate this railroad because we’d have to replace this alleged ‘parkland’ with 7 acres of parkland somewhere else. To that I say AWESOME.

Here are 596 acres of potential parkland available immediately. Why doesn’t the ‘Trust for Public Land’ go build their park there?

Here’s our own proposal from 2014 to create parkland on a 17 acre plot of land elsewhere in Queens.

The tracks here should NEVER have been handed to the parks department – and many question when this transaction took place. Where is the paper trail? When did a public ceremony take place about this transfer? Was the community notified at the time it happened? If Benepe and Queensway advocates want to keep using this in their defense, they have a lot of questions to answer.

My argument is summed up nicely in one tweet.
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Parks are great – but anyone with half a brain stem knows that NYC needs more transit options – especially central and southern Queens, where commute times via mass transit range between 1-2 hours. Commuters are forced to either drive or take a slow running bus to an overcrowded subway line which eventually will get them to their jobs. If you can’t afford a car, you are being systematically economically repressed by those who rather see a fancy park than for you to have 4 hours of your life back every single day you go to work.

The answer to Queensway is No.

In upcoming posts, we’ll look at the track segments north of Union Turnpike, the tracks South of Park Lane, and South of the bus lot at 99th ave. We’ll explore the abandoned station remains, and associated infrastructure.

13 responses to “Abandoned LIRR Rockaway Beach Branch – Park Politics Edition”

  1. VLM says:

    Funny watching Benepe claim to speak for the “community” here. He lives comfortably far away from Queensway on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

  2. Eugene Falik says:

    This is an excellent rebuttal to the nonsense coming from the Queensway advocates. The Queensway people, and DOT’s Woodhaven Boulevard proposals are just two sides of the same effort — insure that Queens does not have decent north / south transportation.

    To see more discussion of the DOT proposal vs. the QueensRail proposal to reactivate the line, go to the Queens Public Transit Committee’s web site, http://www.qptc.org.

  3. Control says:

    Those upper west side parks sure looked nice under Benepe’s nose, while everything in Queens rotted.

    Eugene, I agree 100%

  4. Dear Friends,
    It’s great to see others take up the flag of transportation equality. The QueensRail is a reality. We need people across the region to promote it. We need to organize. Start a transit group or join the Queens Public Transit Committee. We need you to help us reopen the QueensRail. Let’s reduce travel times and unite the region with fast, safe, reliable and quiet rail service. We believe in the QueensRail, the old Rockaway Beach Line, the new Queens Crosstown.
    http://www.qptc.org
    Thank you
    Itvquad for your photos and your support. It’s very helpful.
    http://www.qptc.org

  5. lost forest through the trees says:

    Even if you spend the money to reopen this failed transit line, MTA doesn’t have a budget for additional rolling stock or operations. This is a bogus argument. It is not going to happen anytime soon.

    The argument is not transit vs. parkland. This is not a park – It is a greenway that provides improved local accessibility for Queens residents. When opened, this greenway will give people options to safely and conveniently walk and bike. People in this part of Queens rarely do these activities because the existing road network is unsafe, and infrastructure for modes that are not motor vehicles simply doesn’t exist.

    This is a slam dunk. Build the greenway, get more cars off the streets for local trips, ensure regional connectivity for alternative modes. If MTA gets its act together and the demand exists for rail, then put the train back. In the meanwhile, put a better bus system (including dedicated lanes) in place to encourage transit use. Are the transit folks so afraid that the greenway will be so successful that it won’t be able to be removed?

    NIMBY folks who live along the ROW, don’t get it. IT IS PUBLIC LAND. Would they rather have a greenway that they can use for safe local transportation or a high speed / high noise rail corridor in their backyard.

    This is a project that would be developed as a partnership with local groups, businesses and schools. It will be programmed and supported so that it will not rot. It has the potential to transform Queens and serve as a model for other communities burdened with decaying / abandoned infrastructure and road and transportation systems that incentivize car travel for short trips, and force us all to buy in to the myth of motored independence.

    We know that transportation in Queens will not be improved by building more lanes of roads. This greenway project will allow Queens residents to balance local and regional accessibility. This is chump change when compared to the requirements for turning the ROW back into active transit use. It deserves a chance.

  6. Matt W says:

    And how many parks are there in Forest Hills ??? About 15 ? They have more parks than any other place in NYC. This is a “stall” tactic to stop the QueensRail from being re-activated. They stole the Railway from southern Queens while they enjoy a direct (15 min. ride) subway route into Manhattan. They also have a LIRR station. You’re going to cough up that railway that you stole from the people and you’re going to have to give it back ! Don’t like the noisy train ? You shouldn’t have bought a house next to Railroad tracks (and illegally squatted on it). You’re going to have to MOVE !

  7. Control says:

    ‘lost forest through the trees’ – No.

    This is not a ‘failed transit line’. The tracks were abandoned by the LIRR while it was still a private corporation. It was one of the first victims of passenger railroad transportation’s demise at the hands of the auto industry and federal government that blew billions of dollars on highways and did nothing to support rail. If the government didn’t step in during the 1970s, the MTA as we know it would not have existed. There would be no commuter rail at all. Amtrak and the northeast corridor would not exist. So please – stop spreading lies that this is s ‘failed transit route’ because history tells us a very, very different, fact based story. What was once said about those who forget their history?

    Also stop saying ‘Greenway” when you’re really saying ‘Queensway”.

    Let’s pick apart some of your other false arguments:

    1) “this isn’t transit vs. parkland’. It is.

    2) “When opened this greenway will give people options to conveniently walk or bike’ They don’t want to walk miles to work. They want a real rail transit option to get them to and from their jobs quickly.

    3) “People in this part of Queens rarely do these activities because the existing road network is unsafe, and infrastructure for modes that are not motor vehicles simply doesn’t exist. ” You are kidding me right? People in these neighborhoods rely on cars because they have no choice. A bike lane or hiking trail are not going give them a real transit option besides driving.

    Also – seriously – did you just call Queens residents lazy sods who never work out? I can read between the lines, and everyone else reading what you said can as well. We’re not easily fooled.

    4) “This is a slam dunk” In your delusional mind, maybe. I can assure you many other people feel very differently.

    5) “If MTA gets its act together and the demand exists for rail, then put the train back.” Cuomo controls the MTA, and instead of even studing reopeing rail, he is funding a park so his friends can have a job. Anyone paying attention to transit issues knows that Cuomo doesn’t give one fuck about the MTA or improving the lives of NYC commuters via better transit options.

    6) “It has the potential to transform Queens and serve as a model for other communities burdened with decaying / abandoned infrastructure” My god, stop. What other neighborhoods have had their transit options taken away from them and replaced with parkland? What other neighborhoods have ‘decaying abandoned infrastructure’ that can be re-purposed? (Hint: I already know the answers – do you?). At best, a park (or in your words, ‘greenway”) will only become yet another neglected green space in Queens. We have hundreds of acres of green space that the city and state governments refuse to maintain. Face it: your dream would quickly turn into a useless nightmare – one that does nothing to help commuters who just want to get to work or school on time without depending on horrible bus service or riding a bike<

    7) “This is chump change when compared to the requirements for turning the ROW back into active transit use. It deserves a chance.” Compared to other transit projects, reopening these tracks would be chump change. Reopening these tracks would transform the lives of those who just want to get to and from their jobs without spending hours every week in traffic or on buses that only bring them to overcrowded subway routes. NYC, and Queens especially, NEEDS more transit options. We DO NOT NEED a potential transit option taken away. Once it is taken from us, we will never get it back. Get it?

  8. Control says:

    NOTE: I won’t be approving further Queensway support comments unless you make a seriously compelling argument why Queens needs a new park over a real shovel ready transit solution. Queensway supporters have had their turn dominating the conversation in the media. Now it’s our turn.

    Let’s reopen these tracks, because they never should have been abandoned to begin with. Period.

  9. _itscarlito says:

    Same can (technically) be said about SI’s North Share Branch, the MTA is “still” researching the dedicated Busway option. The tracks and ROW are already there, but gov. wants to go the cheaper, band-aid route. Why can’t we have our shit together like Europe. Paris has direct options to the airport, Berlin HbF to Schonefeld, hell even Miami from downtown to MIA. Embarrassment really, that people don’t have a direct option from JFK to the city and vice-versa without having to cough up an additional $5 to Port Authority at Jamaica Center or have a long-haul via the A.

    Quick Question: Aren’t there bell-mouth’s at Woodhaven Blvd that would’ve connected to this somehow?

  10. Control says:

    _itscarlito – yes. I don’t believe the tunnel from Queens Blvd to the LIRR / White pot jct. was ever built, but that is a very short stretch.

    I’m not sure what would be better long term (conenction to LIRR or connection to Queens Blvd subway). It would certainly cost more to connect to the subway since you’d have to reconfigure white pot jct. and install new tunnel approaches under the active LIRR mainline. It could be done though – and for likely far less than say, building the 7 extension.

  11. Control says:

    Unless we elect representatives who are serious about transit, we’ll never see projects like the SI north shore come back. Rail could truly make the north shore a more attractive place to live, but as we’ve seen over the decades, no one cares to invest in Staten Island. It is disgusting.

    I bet some park or trail group will go after that ROW next.

  12. precawprop says:

    We used to have a few articles with photos of it posted to this site a long time ago. This post will be the first of a ‘reboot’ series covering the length of this abandoned railroad. Where is this information?

  13. Control says:

    The old posts will never be back. The rest will come slowly over time.

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  • About The Author

    Bad Guy Joe

    Bad Guy Joe
    Bad Guy Joe knows more about the NYC underground than anyone else on or below the surface of this planet. He has spent nearly 30 years sneaking into NYC's more forbidden locations. When not underground, he's probably bitching about politicians or building something digital. 
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