For decades, Queens residents have been debating what to do with the deactivated Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Rail Road — a 3.2 mile former train line that nature has taken over since the last train ran on its tracks back in 1962.
On Monday, mayoral candidate Andrew Yang stood on top of the rusting remnants cutting through the overgrowth adjacent to Forest Park and pledged his support for the “QueensWay,” a plan to convert the Rockaway Beach branch into a linear park similar to that of Manhattan’s High Line.
Yang, in fact, made the QueensWay a centerpiece of his public park platform, in which he seeks to “ensure 100% park access to every New Yorker by building the next generation of great parks” in the five boroughs.
He also called for converting more schoolyards into green public playgrounds; launching a self-filtering floating swimming pool program on the city’s waterfronts, and making the Open Streets program — a de Blasio Administration initiative to give people places to recreate during the COVID-19 pandemic — a permanent fixture in the city landscape.
“The pandemic brought into focus the fact that not all parks are created equal, and far too many New Yorkers — 1.1 million to be exact — did not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk of their home,” Yang said during his Forest Park press conference. “Which is why as mayor, I’m going to put an end to the disinvestment and piecemeal approach to designing our parks. We’re going to build bigger, nicer, and frankly, cooler, parks across the five boroughs, and we’re going to bring those parks to Black and Brown communities where park space is sorely needed.”
The vision of turning the overgrown Rockaway Beach branch from Rego Park to Ozone Park into a public park has been something that borough residents have kicked around off-and-on for at least 15 years. The QueensWay vision came about in 2011 as a way to turn the former train line, a favorite destination among urban explorers, into a nature trail and public park for all residents to enjoy.
In the years that followed, the Trust for Public Land secured state funding for potentially converting part of the Rockaway Beach line into a public park.
Travis Terry, a member of the Friends of the QueensWay, said the project has the potential to create 47 new acres of park space “in the most diverse area of the city into usable and much-needed open space.”
Terry, however, added that he hoped other mayoral candidates would get on board with the plan.
“We look forward to working with all mayoral candidates and the next administration to create a place that will boost local businesses, provide a safe way to bike, jog and walk, improve safety and environmental conditions, and benefit the quality of life of central Queens residents,” he said.
Though the QueensWay plan gained the support of elected officials and business organizations in Queens, there were some who wondered whether the time had come to bring train service back, in some form, to the Rockaway Beach line.
In 2017, the MTA commissioned a study of restoring the line to its former use within the LIRR system, or even making it part of the subway system. Elected officials in southern Queens suggested that taking the former strategy would save commuters nearly an hour of travel time a day.
But the dream of a railroad revival took a major hit in October 2019, when a preliminary study report found that it would likely cost the MTA between $6.7 and $8.1 billion to rebuild the LIRR tracks or make it part of the subway system. The reconstruction plan was also not listed in the MTA’s five-year capital plan.