When Linda Williams commuted to her night job in Manhattan last year, she had to leave from the Rockaways two hours in advance just to make it to work on time.
Williams’ commute has become even worse, as the destruction of the trestle during Hurricane Sandy that carried the A-train over Jamaica Bay into the Rockaways has extended her commute by an hour. Residents must now take the shuttle bus at the Mott Avenue stop and transfer at Howard Beach to the A-train.
A 2-hour commute is now a 3-hour one.
“I’m getting out of the Rockaways and getting closer to land,” said Williams, who lives near the Beach 105th Street stop. “As much as we enjoy the water, the transportation is horrible.”
Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the Rockaways’ public transportation has complicated an already grueling commute and has highlighted a growing debate among politicians, committees and citizens to revitalize the former Long Island Rail Road’s Rockaway Beach Branch, an abandon commuter railway that once stretched from Rego Park to the Rockaways until it was closed in 1962. Supporters view a revitalization of the line as a way to shorten the commute into Manhattan, attract more residents to the community and usher economic development in this part of the city.
In the first half of the 20th century, residents could take the Long Island Rail Road’s Rockaway Beach Branch from New York Penn Station and arrive at Rockaway Beach in a little more than 30 minutes.
“We called it the short way because it went right through,” said longtime Queens resident Howard Schwach, 73, who recalled riding the defunct rail line as a child in the late 1940s. “Back then, everyone dressed up to go into Manhattan. It was exciting to ride the train and a quick 40 minutes.”
The line was abandoned in 1962 after a decline in ridership and track fires made maintenance too costly.
Currently more than 15 percent of residents who rely on public transportation in Queens Community District 14, which includes the Rockaways, have commutes that stretch at least 90 minutes according to the American Community Survey 2006-2010 poll. That is more than double the citywide average.
Some residents have advocated for restoration of the line as a way to improve the community, and the community board cited in its 2013 district needs report that having a restored rail line would attract working-class families to the borough because commutes to the city would be between 35 to 45 minutes.
Back when the rail service was provided to commuters, much of Queens’ scenery was filled with undeveloped fields. Now, homes have been built along the line. Some residents near the line have rallied against the train being restored, sighting concerns about noise from passing trains.
Advocates have addressed those concerns by promoting the possibility of a light rail option, similar to the Air-Tran line that runs to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“That would be an unbearable move and affect the livability of the area,” said Michael Gallagher who currently lives in Rego Park and whose home is near part of the abandoned line. “I would move.”
State Assemblyman Philip Goldfeder, who represents the Rockaways and parts of southern Queens, has been the main proponent of restoring the Rockaway Beach Branch. He has garnered more than 3,000 signatures on his website in support of the rail line, he said. According to his website, Goldfeder launched his petition in April.
He spoke at a Dec. 12 Community Board 6 meeting in support of the rail line.
“Queens is at its capacity,” Goldfeder said. “We need to plan for the future.”
Another group has a different plan for the abandoned tracks. They want to turn the space into a High Line-style park called the QueensWay, which would transform the line into a greenway or park.
That idea could have backing from Major League Soccer, which is considering using land along the Rockaway Beach Branch rail line as replacement park space if MLS’s proposal for a 25,000-seat stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is approved.
While Goldfeder said he is open to speaking with The Friends of the QueensWay about their greenway proposal, he vowed to not let the rail line stay the way it is.
“My biggest problem is the people who [would] rather do nothing,” Goldfeder said. “That attitude has got to go.”
Revitalizing the rail line may offer economic possibilities for southern Queens as well. Although it is accessible via subway and shuttle bus, the volume of people going to and from Resorts World Casino each day may call for another mode of transportation. Approximately 20,000 people visit each day Monday through Thursday, and 30,000 Friday through Sunday.
Resorts World is eager for more transportation options in the area and may help pay for part of the plan, boasting the burden of cost, one of the restorations biggest hurdles.
“We would be willing to be part of the financing of such improvements,” wrote Resorts World spokesperson Stefan Friedman in an email, though he stopped short of endorsing a specific plan.
State Assemblyman Michael Miller, who represents Queens and has backed Goldfeder in support of the full restoration of the rail line, said that he now favors a different plan, one that would not have LIRR trains going into the Rockaways.
Miller favors another plan where the A train would run through Brooklyn on the 2-4-5 line, gaining access to Manhattan much faster. He said cost is a deciding factor in the decision.
But pro-rail advocates are still going strong. The Regional Rail Working Group, an advocacy group that looks to enhance rail options for commuters in the tri-state area, is still fighting to get the LIRR running to the Rockaways.
Lew Simon, an advocate for the restoration of the Rockaway Beach Branch rail line and part of RRWG, has been fighting to have to line revived since the 1990s and ran unsuccessfully for city council on a pro-transportation platform.
Simon said he sees the recent destruction of the A train trestle as an opportunity for the Metropolitan Transit Authority to rebuild the bridge with four lanes, thus accommodating tracks for a restoration of the abandoned line.
“We are getting billions of dollars in aid, why not use a little more to widen the trestle,” said Simon, who noted he and Goldfeder are in talks with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA. “They are going to repair it anyway.”
For Schwach, a lifelong Rockaways resident, the argument has been going on for far too long and the fight is a waste. He recommends putting the resources into other projects, but still the line holds a soft spot for him.
“I was born in the Rockaways, rode the rail line and have a connection to it,” said Schwach. “As much as I want to see it, I don’t think I ever will.”