what was old is new again

The long abandoned Rockaway Branch of the LIRR in Queens

New York is an amazing place for its capacity for adaptation. It appears that the Big Apple has seen more boom and bust times than any other American city and yet still galavents ahead as if nothing has ever stood in its way. America’s largest city has a recent history of tragedy: the September 11th attacks, the Financial Crisis, and Hurricane Sandy, but despite all of that the city is going through a livability renaissance of new residential building, European-style bike and pedestrian infrastructure, massive rail transit projects, and new public park spaces. Most notably, the transformation of Times Square back to a pedestrian dominant space and the adaptive re-use of the High Line have made headlines around the world.

Now the city is poised to continue the livability trend with a new rails-to-trail project known as the QueensWay. The idea, recently endowed with a study grant from Governor Cuomo, is to turn an old abandoned rail track into a linear public park much like the High Line. Now, expectations are a little lower on grandeur since the line is not in Manhattan and not poised to be a major tourist attraction, but the proposed park would be much longer at 3.5 miles and is much needed as an asset to the residents of Queens. There are those who oppose this of course, many transit users want the branch line reopened to service as there is a growing need for cross town connections and the age-old dream of connecting JFK Airport to Midtown directly.

So here we have an impasse, build a trail for livability or build a train for livability. Either would be a great boon for Queens, but unfortunately you can’t have both… or can you? There are a great deal of arguments on both sides, but is there anyone willing to compromise on a single-track transit connection with a mixed-use trail next to it? A light rail system connector or an LIRR commuter rail line could operate effectively on a single track with sidings. The old rail line already has triple-track sections making either technology work on a limited schedule. If there was a demand for a higher frequency service the line probably wouldn’t have been abandoned in the first place or rebuilt by now. Since the trail would traverse an already heavily urbanized area, it would be hard to argue the necessity for a full ROW wide trail, especially if crime prevention and safety are concerns in the proposed landscaped areas.

Location of the ROW in relation to the New York subway system

Location of the ROW in relation to the New York subway system

As far as placemaking is concerned, the trail is more important than a new transit line. Places are all about the people and their connectivity, and a North-South trail would connect a lot of neighborhoods and the existing public and private assets along the line. The trail could act as a recreational feeder route to the ample parkland centrally located along the old ROW as well. One of the greatest achievements of the High Line, which could happen agian here, is the sense of place created not just for and by the locals, but also for all New Yorkers and tourists who visit.

The railway is also important to all of New York as any linear property through an urbanized area is: potential transport. This cannot be understated, as the ability to move people within a city is in direct correlation to its economic vitality. Reconnecting this abandoned railway to the Rockaways has not garnered enough demand thus far, but a faster and more direct rail line from Midtown to JFK would be extremely helpful for not just business travel, but also reduce the travel time and auto use for all passengers to and from the metropolitan area.

Luckily the ROW was kept in public hands for a future use, and now, strangely, the public has two competing uses for it. I just hope there’s money to do the right thing and do it well, whether its a trail, train, or both.

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