KEW GARDENS — The old Rockaway Beach branch of the Long Island Rail Road has sat unused and abandoned for 50 years. Now, two groups are vying to breathe new life into the rail line, including one that wants to turn it into Queens' High Line.
The Regional Rail Working Group wants to reactive train service along the 3.5 mile line, which stretches from Rego Park to Rockaway Boulevard in Ozone Park. But the Friends of the QueensWay, wants to turn it into a green space similar to Manhattan's High Line Park, but on a much larger scale.
When the two groups met Monday night at the Queens Civic Congress held at the Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, the forum got a little heated. "There were strong feelings from both sides," said George Haikalis, Regional Rail Working Group chairperson.
The rail line, which ran through Forest Hills, Rego Park, Richmond Hill, Woodhaven and Ozone Park before reaching Far Rockaway, opened in 1877 but its ridership declined after a fire in 1950. It was finally closed in 1962 and is currently home to overgrown bushes, beer cans and graffiti.
Haikalis' group envisions a high speed rail line that offers direct service from Midtown Manhattan to JFK airport and the Aqueduct racino. "Commuter rail lines are a sleeping giant of mobility that could be awoken if used better," said Haikalis, 76.
He also believes that current mass transportation to JFK is inefficient, with riders having to take the Long Island Railroad to Jamaica and then transfer to the AirTrain at extra cost, he said.
They can also take the subway, but the AirTrain does not take unlimited ride MetroCards.
The idea of reactivating the rail line has also gained currency among local pols, who recently called for the tracks to be pressed back into service to cut into the commuting time from Southern Queens to Forest Hills.
But Friends of the QueensWay finds a resumption of train service to be impractical. "Its not a reactivation, it's all broken," said Andrea Crawford, spokesperson for the group. "You would have to rebuild it. There's nothing to reactivate."
Instead, Crawford would like to see something like the High Line, but on a much grander scale. Crawford said that in addition to a park, the rail line could be home to artists spaces, with restaurants and retail under the bridges. And the community group could take advantage of the rail line's natural features.
"The Forest Hills Little League could build bleachers on the embankment," Crawford said, adding that the project would link all parts of Queens and "feed into the cultural diversity" of the borough.
Haikalis said that the Regional Rail Working Group is open to compromising and adding green space to the rail line.
He also said that noise from the trains can be abated. "I'm certain that we can reduce the noise these trains make, and the amount of space they take up can be brought down," he said. "The remaining space can be green."
Both proposals are in the nascent stages — the QueensWay group has just started looking for funding with the Trust for Public Land in order to conduct a feasibility study. A reactivated rail line, too, would require significant investment and oversight to complete.
But Haikalis isn't deterred. "The rail yard has been closed for 50 years," he said. "And I've been working to reopen it for 49."