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Image courtesy of KPF
Image courtesy of KPF
A projection of what the "QNS Rail" could look like if completed, with service from Jamaica to Long Island City.

The results of a yearlong study to determine if passenger train service could be restored to a former commuter railroad line that runs through Ridgewood, Glendale and Maspeth have been released, but the price tag could derail the plan.

The study conducted by AECOM and sponsored by former Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley — who allocated $500,000 from the city’s 2017 budget to pay for it — determined that it would be possible to upgrade the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road’s Lower Montauk Branch and operate a joint passenger-freight service, but the cost would be in the billions.

If the current freight service on the tracks is maintained, the cost of what’s dubbed the QNS Light Rail line (no relation to our site) would be approximately $2.2 billion. If the freight service is eliminated and the tracks are just used for commuter service, it will still cost $1.1 billion, according to the study.

Councilman Robert Holden, Crowley’s successor, expressed his disapproval of the study in a statement on Monday, saying that the cost of the study was not worth the investment.

“This study was a colossal waste of money that could have otherwise been used to benefit my district,” Holden said in the statement. “Instead, those tax dollars went to fund a study for a project that is both infeasible and undesirable.”

The multibillion-dollar price tag comes from the need to significantly upgrade the infrastructure of the existing tracks on the Lower Montauk Branch, the study found.

Adding commuter trains to the line would require upgrading the existing tracks, signals and communication to meet current safety standards, as well as adding 10 new stations, a storage and maintenance facility, grade crossing elimination at three intersections and a 15-car fleet.

Maintaining freight service along the line outside of commuter hours would require additional running track in some areas and new freight rail yards, the study shows.

The Lower Montauk Branch is an 8.5 mile track from Jamaica to Long Island City that cuts through the “transportation desert” between the L and E/F subway train lines. According to the findings, an estimated 21,000 riders on each weekday and 13,000 on the weekends would amount to approximately 5.8 million riders in a year.

Image courtesy of KPF

Image courtesy of KPF from its presentation on the QNS Rail

At a fare of $2.75 per ride, the revenue brought in from ridership would be about $15 million annually. The study also points out that annual operations and maintenance costs would be $55 million.

Another possible source of revenue would be from the sale of bonds due to the increase in property value attributed to the proposed commuter trains. The study estimates those bonds could make up for approximately $309 million, or about 14 percent of the total capital costs of the project.

Community Board 5 supported the decision to conduct the study when it was first proposed, and district manager Gary Giordano said that the cost of the study may have been a little high in hindsight, but there was a serious need to consider ways to address the borough’s transportation issues. After seeing the results, however, Giordano did not see how the project could become a reality.

“The average ridership could potentially take a lot of vehicles off the road, so that’s the best thing I see here,” Giordano said. “But the cost of doing that looks like it would be much too large.”

Giordano also pointed out that, even though the renovations to the track could provide strong development potential, current residents would likely be hurt by the resulting increase in real estate taxes.

In the image below, click and drag the slider from left to right to see a current image of Lefferts Boulevard in Richmond Hill juxtaposed with a projection of what it would look like with the updated train service, courtesy of architecture firm KPF.

Still, Crowley is continuing to work on solutions that would allow the Department of Transportation to move forward with the project. In a report from KPF, the main source of added revenue not accounted for in the AECOM study is an estimated $480 million from the sale of air rights associated with the MTA’s existing right of way on the tracks.

Crowley referenced a 2017 re-zoning plan in Midtown East that involved the sale of air rights for $500 million. The KPF report also said that if built, the QNS Rail would catalyze the building of more than 72,000 housing units without a major re-zoning or change in land use.

The addition of that money would bring the project closer to covering the $1.1 billion cost of adding commuter service, and Crowley added, “Why do we have to use it for freight? It wasn’t built for freight service.”

The KPF report also compares the cost of the 2nd Avenue subway line to the proposed Lower Montauk Branch renovations. The 1.8-mile addition in Manhattan reportedly cost $4.5 billion, which is twice as much as the 8.5-mile branch in Queens. The 2nd Avenue line, however, services nearly 200,000 riders each day.

Former Councilwoman Crowley said that her next steps in continuing to advocate for this project include getting this information to all of the stakeholders that supported her and reaching out to local advocates to help communicate to the MTA that this should be a priority.

“Too many of our Queens communities are transportation deserts,” said Crowley. “Our hard-working residents lack decent, local access to public transit, and then wind up spending too much time commuting on unreliable service.”

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz also supports the project and said in her State of the Borough address on Jan. 26 that she wants the line to be fully operational by 2030.

After this story’s initial publication, Elizabeth Crowley sought to clarify her position about the current freight operations on the tracks. She said that she did not think the tracks should be used “solely” for freight service, but did not want to seem opposed to freight service. The study was fair to both sides, she said, and she looks forward to negotiating about the simultaneous use of commuter and freight services.

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Pedro Valdez Rivera Jr. March 05, 2018 / 05:43PM
In the era of Trump, that is not going to happen in our own lifetime.
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