In Queens, a desperately needed transit option for multiple communities is under attack.
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.
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.
In December 2015, Benepe posted these gems in response to a twitter account advocating for the reactivation of these tracks as a transit route.
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.
In this tweet, Benepe states the tracks are a haven for drug addicts.
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
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.
Map of the track layout through this area.
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)
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’?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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’.
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?
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.
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.
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.
If this is parkland, why wasn’t the old fence between the park and tracks removed?
The replacement parkland non-issue
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?
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.
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.