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Op-ed: An alternative to light rail for western Queens

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

BY LARRY PENNER

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley’s proposed light rail line for western Queens would connect Glendale and Middle Village with Long Island City. It sounds great on paper, but there has been no planning feasibility studies, environmental documents or preliminary design and engineering efforts necessary to validate any basic estimates for construction costs. Crowley’s belief that it would be well under $100 million doesn’t add up. New Jersey Transit’s Hudson Bergen Light Rail cost $1.2 billion and Newark Elizabeth Light Rail cost $694 million 15 years ago. Clearly costs would be far greater in today’s dollars.

There is no money to support any work for advancement of this project contained within the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s original $32 billion 2015-2019 Five-Year Capital Plan. Ditto for the revised $28 billion version or the city’s $78 billion 2015-2016 municipal budget.

The proposed route will traverse several neighborhoods, impacting thousands of people living nearby. How will they react to potential noise and visual impacts? There are serious legal and operational issues to be resolved with the Federal Railroad Administration. They have regulatory jurisdiction over significant portions of the proposed route which would run on existing active freight tracks.  Light rail and freight trains will coexist on the same narrow corridor. There is no available project budget to justify key project component costs. They would have to cover a series of new stations. These will have to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) access standards; grade crossing, signal and safety improvements, new light rail rolling stock, land acquisition, potential business relocation along with construction of a new maintenance, operations and storage yard to support any light rail car fleet.

Other Queens elected officials, transit riders and transit advocacy groups all have their own transportation priority projects that may conflict with this proposal. Queens residents might prefer restoration of service along the LIRR Rockaway branch, also known as the White Pot Junction Line. This was abandoned in the 1950s. It started off as a spur from the LIRR mainline east of Woodside at Rego Park running to Ozone Park connecting to the A line subway near Aqueduct Racetrack. Others want to reopen the Elmhurst LIRR station on the Port Washington branch, initiate permanent new ferry service from Astoria, Bayside and the Rockaways to Manhattan. Many want construction of either Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and/or Select Bus Service (SBS) on various routes and corridors in different neighborhoods. Don’t forget the Flushing Intermodal Bus Terminal project which has been on the books for over 50 years.

Rather than spend several hundred million dollars to build a light rail system which could take a decade or more, why not ask the LIRR to resume service on this corridor? They could run a two-car scoot service reconnecting Long Island City, Glendale and Middle Village with other communities including Richmond Hill and other intermediate stops to Jamaica. The LIRR could use existing equipment which would afford far earlier implementation of service versus light rail. This would provide connections east bound to the J/Z and E subway lines, JFK Airport via train to plane and Jamaica LIRR Station. Queens residents would have access to all LIRR branches except the Port Washington line.

Larry Penner is a concerned self-described taxpayer and citizens’ civic activist. He has been an avid letters to the editor contributor for over 20 years.

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