Hopes for a fast train to the Rockaways are raised, then dashed again

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Up on the old tracks. (Dana Rubinstein)
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On Friday morning, just hours before Governor Andrew Cuomo revealed that talks to build a $4 billion convention center in Queens had collapsed, Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder climbed a rusty trestle in Rockaway Beach, leading to an abandoned train track lush with plant life.

Goldfeder described how the nearby convention center development might spark a rejuvenation of the long-derelict railroad, and by extension, southeastern Queens.

“The right of way exists, the tracks exist, the infrastructure, you know, while a bit shaky, still exists, so this would be—when talking about improving transportation and looking to the future for the borough of Queens—this is our best option,” said Goldfeder.

He said that the convention center plan “just gives us more of a catalyst and more of an investment from the state.”

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In the first half of the last century, a beachcomber from the Rockaways could board the Long Island Railroad and arrive in Manhattan in under 40 minutes.

But the line was scrapped, in part because "that line has very few riders compared to other lines," said transit historian Peter Derrick.

Portions of the line were later incorporated into the A train that now serves Far Rockaway, but since 1962, the segment running from Ozone Park to Rego Park and connecting southern Queens to northern Queens has sat unused, its wooden ties rotting atop elevated train platforms, and its ground-level right-of-way overtaken, in parts, by the gradual expansion of residential backyards.

Today, the more circuitous trip from the Rockways to Manhattan, via Brooklyn, takes an hour and a half.

“If you live in Rockaway, you know it sucks,” said Vince Castellano, a longtime community board member, of the neighborhood's transportation options.

Transit advocates including Castellano periodically rally for the the Rockaway Beach rail line's revival. And they saw the governor’s plan to let a Malaysian gambling company called Genting build a 3.8-million-square-foot convention center at the Aqueduct Racetrack as its best chance in years.

Right now, Aqueduct is served by the A train, but it’s a long ride to and from Manhattan, and Genting acknowledged as much, saying it was interested in exploring, and helping fund, a new transit option giving convention-goers better access to the rest of the city.

Reports indicated Genting was mostly just interested in running an express train on the existing line, but Castellano, echoing the arguments of other local transit proponents, said, “If he really wants to develop Aqueduct, I think he has to do something with this line.”

Transit advocates have proposed various ideas for the abandoned line, but they all basically boil down to reviving a few miles of rail between the Aqueduct and Rego Park, thereby intersecting with existing LIRR lines, and maybe also the A/C/E, the J/Z, the M/R, and allowing Queens residents to move both within their borough, and to Manhattan, quickly.

There is, inevitably, opposition to the idea, concentrated in neighborhoods whose residents have long since absorbed parts of the long-abandoned right-of-way into their backgrounds and in any case aren’t eager to have a new train roaring past their homes.

Others have proposed running a bike path along the old line and turning it into a High Line-like esplanade.

“While there is no question that the Rockaways are in need of transportation, we have to take into consideration the residents who had built their homes along the Rockaway rail line, which hasn’t been used in over fifty years, in Rego Park and Richmond Hill,” said Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, in a statement.

After spending a half hour among the weeds and discarded rustoleum cans atop the elevated train track in Ozone Park, Goldfeder climbed down the trestle.

“The way you’re doing this, your legs aren't long enough,” said Castellano, standing on the ground below. “Slide to the left, Phillip.”

Goldfeder began stepping down more confidently.

“Look at this guy,” said Castellano. “He’s such a showoff. What a ham. And he’s Jewish!”

By evening, the political landscape had changed. Cuomo revealed, during an interview on David Paterson’s radio show, that talks between the state and Genting “haven't really worked out,” and said he would open up the competition to other bidders.

Those other bidders don’t control land at Aqueduct, like Genting does, and their bids would almost certainly involve locations that have nothing to do with the abandoned Rockaway line.

"Oh, shit!" wrote Castellano, in an email the next morning, with an AP story about the beakdown of talks attached. "I hope this is a negotiating ploy.”

On Monday, Goldfeder tried to sound a more positive note, saying that while he was “severely disappointed” with what transpired, “Aqueduct was only one reason to do it. There are many reasons to build the line, not just to help Aqueduct, but also the commute times for people in southern Queens and Rockaway, and also for intra-borough connectivity.”

Asked whether, at the very least, the collapse of talks diminished whatever political momentum had developed to reestablish the line, Goldfeder said, “Yes.”